SciAmMind on altruism, money and leadership

The August edition of Scientific American Mind has just arrived online and in the shops. The freely available articles from this edition tackle teamwork and finance as one investigates the psychology of leadership and the other looks at the role of altruism in financial decision-making.

The article on leadership contrasts the traditional view of leadership, often based on a combination of top-down charisma and coercion, with a more recent view that emphasises a leader of someone who facilitates communication and understand the group values and emotional intelligence.

It particularly explores the role of ‘social identity’ in leadership, the idea that people define part of themselves in relationship to the group and a good leader is someone who uses this as the most effective way of bonding and focusing the team.

The article on altruism in financial reasoning looks at the increasing amount of research that shows that individuals are not perfectly rational wealth accumulators and will often incorporate notions of fairness and social concern into monetary decisions, even when this can lead to a loss.

Ockenfels’s Equity, Reciprocity and Competition (ERC) theory, which he developed with economist Gary Bolton of Pennsylvania State University, states that people not only try to maximize their gains but also watch to see that they get roughly the same share as others: they are happy to get one piece of cake as long as the next person does not get two pieces. This fairness gauge apparently even has a defined place in the brain. On eBay, however, fairness takes the system only halfway, researchers have now learned; eBay’s reputation system is critical for augmenting the level of trust enough for the market to work.

Circumstance also sculpts behavior, studies have revealed, regardless of natural character traits or values. That is, whether a person is competing in a market of strangers or negotiating with a partner can make a big difference in whether fairness, reciprocity or selfishness will predominate. In fact, the ERC theory hints at ways to alter economic institutions to nudge people to compete—or cooperate—more or less than they currently do.

Other feature articles in the print edition include ones on the effect of language on decision-making, the psychology of college drop-out, the professed fantasies of school shooters, consciousness and physical sensation, and inherited prosopagnosia (face-blindness).

Link to table of contents for August SciAmMind.
Link to article ‘The New Psychology of Leadership’.
Link to article ‘Is Greed Good?’

The obvious and not-so-obvious in psychology

Tom has written an excellent article for The Psychologist on the not-so-obvious findings in psychology which has just been made freely available.

There are certain predictable responses you get if you introduce yourself as a psychologist.

The most common is “are you analyzing me?”, followed by “can you read my mind?”. The best answer to both, of course, is ‘sometimes’.

Occasionally, a bright spark will tell you “psychology, well, it’s just obvious isn’t it?”, which, to be frank, I wish it was. But sadly, it’s fiendishly complicated.

Tom’s article gathers a whole bunch of counter-intuitive research findings for exactly such situations:

I used to keep a stock of ‘unobvious’ findings ready to hand for occasions like this. Is it really obvious that people can be made to enjoy a task more by being more poorly paid to recruit for it (cognitive dissonance: Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959)? That a saline solution can be as effective as morphine in killing pain (the placebo effect: Hrobjartsson, 2001)? That students warned that excessive drinking is putting many of their peers at risk may actually drink more, whereas advertising the fact that most students don’t drink, or drink in moderation, is the thing that actually reduces binge drinking (Perkins et al., 2005)? That over a third of normal people report having had hallucinations, something we normally experience solely with mental illness or substance abuse (Ohayon, 2000)? Or that the majority of ordinary Americans could be persuaded to electrocute someone to death merely by being asked to by a scientist in a white coat (Milgram, 1974)?

There’s many more great examples, including touching on the cognitive bias that leads people to think they understand more than they do when they have little knowledge.

Priceless stuff.

Link to article in The Psychologist on the ‘obvious’.

Gene may influence traumatic memory impact

The Science website is reporting on a study that has found that people with a variant of the ADRA2B gene, which regulates the effect of key memory neurotransmitter norepinephrine, are more likely to have enhanced memory for emotional and traumatic events.

A strong emotional response at the time of an event is known to make the event more memorable, and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline, has been found to be a key player in this process.

The researchers, led by neuroscientist Prof Dominique de Quervain, wondered whether a version of the ADRA2B gene, that codes for the alpha-2b norepinephrine receptor, would influence emotional memory recall.

One of the defining features of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is that distressing memories of the original trauma intrude into everyday life.

People differ in their tendency to remember emotional memories, so understanding the factors behind this difference might help us better understand why some people can survive trauma with little long-lasting disturbance, while others are seriously affected.

The team determined the genotype (gene version) of 435 young Swiss adults and 202 refugees from the Rwandan civil war.

The Swiss volunteers were shown a series of pictures from the International Affective Picture System, a series of photos that range from the pleasant (e.g. sunsets) to the disturbing (e.g. mutilated bodies) that have been rated for their emotional impact.

Participants with a common variant of the ADRA2B gene were more significantly more likely to recall the emotional, but not the neutral pictures.

The refugee participants were asked to recall memories from their time in Rwanda during the civil war.

Participants with the same gene variant that was linked to an increase in emotional picture recall in the Swiss participants, recalled significantly more traumatic incidents than others.

However, the rate of PTSD in the refugee sample did not depend on gene version.

This is possibly because a diagnosis of PTSD requires three things: intrusive traumatic memories, hyperarousal (a feeling of being ‘on edge’ all the time) and avoidance of the reminders of the trauma.

The gene variant was only linked to the likelihood of re-experiencing traumatic memories, and not the other symptoms, suggesting that the effect is specific to memory and not trauma in general.

Link to write-up from Science.
Link to abstract of scientific paper.

LSD, hypnosis and the Catholic Church

I found this interesting snippet, among many interesting snippets, on p194 of David Healy’s book The Creation of Psychopharmacology (ISBN 0674015991), a history of the science and medicine of psychiatric drug development.

It discusses the similarities between the reaction of the authorities to LSD in the 1960s and the reaction to hypnotism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The LSD story has a backdrop of considerable historical resonance. It seemed that under the influence of LSD mainstream cultures were inhibited, that a dose of LSD would lead to a humanizing of society and a democratizing of values. A similar story had played out two hundred years earlier with the development of mesmerism (hypnosis).

Mesmerism led to a perception among “therapists” that the entire social order could have resulted from suggestion. Many viewed mesmerism not just as a means of correcting the problems of an individual but as a means of changing society. Quite a few of the men who signed the early documents triggering the French Revolution were also members of Franz Mesmer’s Society of Harmony.

One of the responses of the establishment was to proscribe mesmerism, and later hypnosis. Mesmerism remained officially banned for almost a hundred years; it took the influence of the most famous clinician of his day, Jean-Martin Charcot, to bring it back to the scientific doman.

But the work of Charcot and Janet on hypnotism created further problems. It began to seem that many religious phenomena, including the stigmata of saints were hypnoid phenomena, and this perception led to the suggestion that saints exhibiting such effects were in fact hysterics.

Hypnosis fell under a further cloud when its use by Freud was associated with his claims that hysteria was linked to sexual abuse during childhood. There was widespread disquiet. The Catholic Church, for example, proscribed hypnosis in the 1880s, and the ban was not lifted until 1955.

The image is part of a larger painting called ‘A Clinical Lesson with Doctor Charcot at the Salpetriere, 1887’ painted by Andr√© Brouillet.

It depicts Charcot and one of his most famous ‘hysterical’ patients Blanche, being supported by Joseph Babi≈Ñski.

Freud had a copy of this picture in his consulting room, and it can still be seen in his old house, now the Freud Museum in London.

UPDATE: Jeremy, of the excellent Advances in the History of Psychology has emailed to say that they recently posted a summary of papers that look at the history of LSD, psychology and psychiatry. Thanks!

Link to book info.
Link to The Creation of Psychopharmacology on Google books.

2007-08-03 Spike activity

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

RadioLab has an edition on time, which includes a section with Oliver Sacks talking about patients with altered time perception.

Cannabis likely raises the risk of psychosis. Nothing we didn’t already know and best to read the original paper [pdf] as the story went completely bizarre as soon as it hit the press. Also discussed on The Lancet podcast [mp3].

Scientific American covers a new theory about the role of spontaneous genetic mutation in risk for autism.

A Wired columnist tries online sex therapy and reports back.

Neurophilosopher has a great article on reconstructive memory and cinema.

My ex-gay life: New York Edge has an article by someone who went through modern-day ‘gay conversion therapy’.

PsychMinded reports that a £16 million campaign to combat stigma related to mental illness has been launched in the UK.

What is guilt for? PsyBlog looks at psychological research which might provide the answer.

Blog around The Clock picks out a great selection of recent psychology news stories.

Verbal reassurance can dull the effect of pain, but only if it’s from someone we identify with, reports the BPS Research Digest.

Retrospectacle has an excellent review of the neuroscience of ADHD.

Encephalon 28 arrives

The 28th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just been published at Bohemian Scientist.

A couple of my favourites include a review of two new books on neuroplasticity and a discussion of art, context and the brain.

There’s plenty more diverse and in-depth articles, so head over for the best of the last fortnight’s mind and brain analysis.

Link to Encephalon 28 at Bohemian Scientist.

Zimbardo interviewed on All in the Mind

Philip Zimbardo, known for the Stanford prison experiment and recent book on the situational causes of ‘evil’, gives a revealing interview to ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind.

Zimbardo’s work has been getting a lot of exposure recently, largely because of the Abu Ghraib scandal and its seeming similarities to the prison experiment.

However, this interview is interesting because Zimbardo discusses his motivations for designing one of the most infamous studies in the history of psychology and reflects upon our understanding of institutionalised abuse and complicity, as well as his own role in creating a ‘petri dish prison camp’.

Stanford University is one of the most beautiful universities in the world and in that basement in the psychology department I created a mini-hell for all those students. This young woman, Christina Maslach, had just gotten a job as a psychology professor at Berkeley and we had just started dating. I looked up and in front of my door was the usual 10 o’clock toilet run, prisoners with paper bags over their heads, legs chained together and one arm on each other’s shoulder, marching blindly down the hall with guards yelling at them obscenely…and I looked up from whatever I was doing and said hey Chris, look at that. I said something like, ‘the crucible of human behaviour’. And she said, ‘I don’t want to see any more of this!’ And she ran out, and I ran after her and we had a big argument: what’s wrong with you, what sort of psychologist are you?

And she says to me, ‘I don’t want to hear about simulation, I don’t want to hear about the power of the situation. ‘It’s terrible what you are doing to those boys, they are not students, they are not prisoners, they are not guards, they are young men, what’s happening to them is terrible and you are responsible for it.’ That was the left hook, the right hook was, ‘You know, I’m not sure I want to continue dating you if this is the real you, this person is like a monster.’ There was like a cataract over my eyes, I was not seeing this most obvious thing that she coming down fresh in ten minutes looks at this and says it’s terrible.

Link to Zimbardo interview on All in the Mind.

Brain electrodes ‘awake’ brain injured man

This week’s Nature has an intriguing short paper by a team of neuroscientists who ‘awoke’ a man from a ‘minimally conscious state’ by activating a surgically implanted brain electrode.

Like a coma, ‘minimally conscious state‘ (MCS) occurs after severe brain injury, but is not a state of complete unconsciousness.

Instead, the patient seems mostly unresponsive but can occasionally produce simple responses to commands or prompts that suggest inconsistent consciousness, such as short purposeful actions, brief verbalisations or emotional reactions.

Like coma, MCS is not a caused by a specific type a brain injury. It’s a description of the person’s behaviour, so it could be caused by varying damage to a wide range of brain systems.

However, it is known that MCS can be caused by problems with arousal. In other words, the major brain systems of the cortex might be relatively intact, but the system that regulates how active they are might be damaged, meaning the person has trouble staying conscious, despite having the potential for possible quite complex mental processes.

The frontal lobes, the brain stem and the thalamus are known to be key parts of the arousal system.

The man in question had been in a MCS for six years after suffering an assault with a blunt instrument that caused haematoma – bleeding in the brain, and subsequently, hydrocephalus – a build up of cerebral spinal fluid. Both of which put pressure on the brain that deformed and damaged it.

Because the man in question could intermittently respond to commands and give verbal responses, the researchers thought this might be a case where impaired arousal might be responsible.

To try and boost the activity in his arousal system, the team implanted a deep brain stimulation device (DBS) that sent electrical pulses directly into the thalamus via two brain electrodes.

After the initial tests, just 48 hours after surgery, there seemed to be some minor improvement in responses and EEG patterns.

This was a good sign, but because this was a new technique and each patient’s pattern of brain injury is distinct, the researchers had to then begin experimenting with different stimulation patterns.

After 18 weeks of testing, they found what seemed to be the optimal stimulation programme.

The patient showed longer periods of eye-opening and increased responsiveness to command and better limb control. He began to name simple objects, chew his own food and could produce up to six-word sentences.

In terms of the patient’s pre-injury level of functioning, the results are modest, but as an improvement on MCS, largely thought to be untreatable after 12 months, it’s a remarkable achievement.

The researchers note that this might not help all people with MCS, as this patient was specifically chosen because of his ‘widely preserved brain structure’, but, as with a previous treatment for coma we reported it’s more evidence that targeting the arousal system might be key in some cases.

In the same issue of Nature there’s an interesting (but closed access) commentary that makes some interesting points about what this tells us about consciousness, and particularly, the brain’s unconscious decision about when to rouse us into consciousness:

In essence, the brain does not process information in the abstract but instead consults information acquired through the senses and in memory insofar as it bears on the decisions made about potential actions and strategies. Our brains allow us to decide among possible options — that is, how and in what context to engage with the world around us. The brain makes many such decisions unconsciously. Indeed, the decision to engage at all is, in effect, an unconscious decision to be conscious. Thus, the brain of the sleeping mother queries the environment for the cry of her newborn. We suspect that the normal unconscious brain monitors the environment for cues that prompt it to decide whether to awaken and engage. This mechanism may be disrupted in various disorders of consciousness, including the minimally conscious state, hypersomnolence, concussion, abulia (lack of will) and possibly severe depression.

Previous theories of consciousness have relied on a central executive and magical physiological phenomena (for example, synchronized reverberations) to elevate the subconscious functions of the brain to consciousness. However, viewed as a decision to engage, consciousness can instead be studied in the same framework as other types of decision and the allocation of attention. Rather than a central executive, there seems to be a network of brain regions that organize the resting state and maintain overall orientation towards context. It is quite possible that they make decisions about whether or not to engage and in what way. They do what Sartre considered impossible: they choose whether to choose or not.

Link to Nature news story on the research (via Retrospectacle).
Link to summary of scientific paper.
Link to Nature commentary.
mp3 of Nature podcast discussion (starts 19 minutes in).
Link to write-up from ABC News.

The modern science of subliminal influence

The New York Times has a great article on how our actions and decisions can be subconsciously ‘primed’ by the world around us.

Priming is a well-established effect in psychology. It describes the effect whereby encountering one thing activates related mental concepts in the mind.

Because they’ve been activated, they influence other mental processes that happen to be occurring at the same time, influencing decision making and desire, even if we’re not aware of it.

New studies have found that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if there‚Äôs a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words like “dependable” and “support” ‚Äî all without being aware of the change, or what prompted it.

Psychologists say that “priming” people in this way is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

More fundamentally, the new studies reveal a subconscious brain that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known. Goals, whether to eat, mate or devour an iced latte, are like neural software programs that can only be run one at a time, and the unconscious is perfectly capable of running the program it chooses.

It’s great to see this article is largely based on published experiments.

Often, experiments tell their own stories and very little is needed to make them ‘accessible’ to the public. Just a bit of light and attention.

Link to NYT article ‘Who‚Äôs Minding the Mind?’.