Predictably irrational, variably dishonest

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely was the guest on the latest edition of ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind where he discusses why we’re so bad at predicting what’s best for us, and why honesty is a shifty behaviour.

As well as being a researcher, Ariely is also author of a psychology book called Predictably Irrational which is currently riding high in the book charts.

It’s worth catching the mp3 version of the programme, as it’s slightly extended, and I found the last part, where Ariely talks about honesty, the most interesting.

Using various experimental conditions where participants are given varying degrees of room for dishonesty, Ariely notes that people tend to be dishonest enough to give themselves an advantage, but suggests we’re not so dishonest to feel bad about ourselves.

In other words, he’s suggesting that honesty is a cognitive dissonance style reasoning process, balancing our desire for personal gain against our willingness to believe in ourselves as a ‘good person’ – an idea explored further in a forthcoming paper [pdf] by Nina Mazar and Dan Ariely.

If you’re interested in a good overview of the psychology of honesty and deception, I’ve just read a fantastic paper [pdf] by the same pair, which is fascinating as much for its insights into what influences our level of honesty for its recommendations about applying the research to encourage people to be more honest.

It notes that getting people to focus on themselves increases honesty, as does getting them to focus on moral ideas, such as the Ten Commandments.

In their experiment, participants were told to write down either as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember (increased self-awareness of honesty) or the names of ten books that they read in high school (control). They had two minutes for this task before they moved on to an ostensibly separate task: the math test. The task in the math test was to search for number combinations that added up to exactly ten. There were 20 questions, and the duration of the experiment was restricted to five minutes. After the time was up, students were asked to recycle the test form they worked on and indicate on a separate collection slip how many questions they solved correctly. For each correctly solved question, they were paid $.50.

The results showed that students who were made to think about the Ten Commandments claimed to have solved fewer questions than those in the control. Moreover, the reduction of dishonesty in this condition was such that the declared performance was indistinguishable from another group whose responses were checked by an external examiner. This suggests that the higher self-awareness in this case was powerful enough to diminish dishonesty completely.

However, I wonder whether the effect of focusing on the Ten Commandments was due to their moral or supernatural associations.

I am reminded of Eric Schwitzgebel’s ongoing project on why ethics professors, who think about moral issues a lot, are no more moral (and perhaps less!) than other people, and a study [pdf] by psychologist Jesse Bering that found that simply telling participants that the lab was haunted increased honesty in a computer task.

Link to Dan Ariely on All in the Mind.
pdf of Mazar and Ariely’s paper on the psychology of dishonesty.

Twisted thoughts

This wonderful knitted brain is by artist Sarah Illenberger. Presumably, we’re looking down on the brain with the two hemispheres slightly separated.

She has also created other wonderful anatomically correct organs, including the heart and the intestines.

It seems this one might be a possible inductee into the Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art.

Link to Sarah Illenberger’s wonderful creations.
Link to Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art.

Rock climbing hacks! (now with added speculation)

reach.jpgI’m going to tell you about an experience that I often have rock-climbing and then I’m going to offer you some speculation as to the cognitive neuroscience behind it. If you rock-climb I’m sure you’ll find my description familiar. If you’re also into cognitive neuroscience perhaps you can tell me if you think my speculation in plausible.

Rock-climbing is a sort of three-dimensional kinaesthetic puzzle. You’re on the side of rock-wall, and you have to go up (or down) by looking around you for somewhere to move your hands or feet. If you can’t see anything then you’re stuck and just have to count the seconds before you run out of strength and fall off. What often happens to me when climbing is that I look as hard as I can for a hold to move my hand up to and I see nothing. Nothing I can easily reach, nothing I can nearly reach and not even anything I might reach if I was just a bit taller or if I jumped. I feel utterly stuck and begin to contemplate the immanent defeat of falling off.

But then I remember to look for new footholds.

Sometimes I’ve already had a go at this and haven’t seen anything promising, but in desperation I move one foot to a new hold, perhaps one that is only an inch or so further up the wall. And this is when something magical happens. Although I am now only able to reach an inch further, I can suddenly see a new hold for my hand, something I’m able to grip firmly and use to pull myself to freedom and triumph (or at least somewhere higher up to get stuck). Even though I looked with all my desperation at the wall above me, this hold remained completely invisible until I moved my foot an inch — what a difference that inch made.

Psychologists have something they call affordances (Gibson, 1977, 1986), which are features of the environment which seem to ‘present themselves’ as available for certain actions. Chairs afford being sat on, hammers afford hitting things with. The term captures an observation that there is something very obviously action-orientated about perception. We don’t just see the world, we see the world full of possibilities. And this means that the affordances in the environment aren’t just there, they are there because we have some potential to act (Stoffregen, 2003). If you are frail and afraid of falling then a handrail will look very different from if you are a skateboarder, or a freerunner. Psychology typically divides the jobs the mind does up into parcels : ‘perception’, (then) ‘decision making’, (then) ‘action’. But if you take the idea of affordances seriously it gives lie to this neat division. Affordances exist because action (the ‘last’ stage) affects perception (the ‘first’ stage). Can we experimentally test this intuition, is there really an effect of action on perception? One good example is Oudejans et al (1996) who asked baseball fielders to judge were a ball would land, either just watching it fall or while running to catch it. A model of the mind that didn’t involve affordances might think that it would be easier to judge where a ball would land if you were standing still; after all, it’s usually easier to do just one thing rather than two. This, however, would be wrong. The fielders were more accurate in their judgements — perceptual predictions basically — when running to catch the ball, in effect when they could use base their judgements on the affordances of the environment produced by their actions, rather than when passively observing the ball.

The connection with my rock-climbing experience is obvious: although I can see the wall ahead, I can only see the holds ahead which are actually within reach. Until I move my foot and bring a hold within range it is effectively invisible to my affordance-biased perception (there’s probably some attentional-narrowing occurring due to anxiety about falling off too, (Pijpers et al, 2006); so perhaps if I had a ladder and a gin and tonic I might be better at spotting potential holds which were out of reach).

There’s another element which I think is relevant to this story. Recently neuroscientists have discovered that the brain deals differently with perceptions occurring near body parts. They call the area around limbs ‘peripersonal space’ (for a review see Rizzolatti & Matelli, 2003). {footnote}. Surprisingly, this space is malleable, according to what we can affect — when we hold tools the area of peripersonal space expands from our hands to encompass the tools too (Maravita et al, 2003). Lots of research has addressed how sensory inputs from different modalities are integrated to construct our brain’s sense of peripersonal space. One delightful result showed that paying visual attention to an area of skin enhanced touch-perception there. The interaction between vision and touch was so strong that providing subjects with a magnifying glass improved their touch perception even more! (Kennett et al, 2001; discussed in Mind Hacks, hack #58). I couldn’t find any direct evidence that unimodal perceptual accuracy is enhanced in peripersonal space compared to just outside it (if you know of any, please let me know), but how’s this for a reasonable speculation — the same mechanisms which create peripersonal space are those which underlie the perception of affordances in our environment. If peripersonal space is defined as an area of cross-modal integration, and is also malleable according to action-possibilities, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that an action-orientated enhancement of perception will occur within this space.

What does this mean for the rock-climber? Well it explains my experience, whereby holds are ‘invisible’ until they are in reach. This suggests some advice to follow next time you are stuck halfway up a climb: You can’t just look with your eyes, you need to ‘look’ with your whole body; only by putting yourself in different positions will the different possibilities for action become clear.

(references and footnote below the fold)

Continue reading “Rock climbing hacks! (now with added speculation)”

English Surgeon reminder

Just a reminder for our readers that have access to the BBC TV channel, BBC Two, that the stunning documentary on neurosurgeons Henry Marsh and Igor Kurilets that we featured previously on Mind Hacks will be shown on Sunday 30th March at 10.55pm

British residents will be able to watch it over the net for a week after on BBC’s iPlayer, which I’ll link to as soon as it appears online.

Everyone else is going to have to wait for a torrent, but I’ll keep an eye out and post a link if one appears.

Either way, Henry Marsh was the first guest on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek which you can listen to via the programme’s webpage.

Link to BBC 2 listing for documentary.
Link to Midweek discussion with Marsh.

Lancet and MNI neuroscience podcasts

I’ve just discovered a couple of great high class neuroscience podcasts. The first is the Lancet Neurology podcast and the second is series of podcasts and video from the Montreal Neurological Institute.

The Lancet Neurology podcasts are all-too-brief but are really well done. In contrast to the American Academy of Neurology podcasts we featured previously, they’re quite accessible even to the non-neurologist.

The MNI is one of the most famous hospitals and neuroscience research centres in the world, and needless to say they have some wonderfully produced podcasts and some great video lectures online. A treasure trove of useful brain listening.

Link to Lancet Neurology podcast.
Link to Montreal Neurological Institute podcasts and video.

Impact of digital media review hits the wires

Psychologist Dr Tanya Byron has just released a remarkably sensible review on the effect of digital media on children, commissioned by the UK government.

Tanya Byron is great. She came to prominence as the resident psychologist on several UK TV parenting programmes but used evidence-based interventions, essentially demonstrating what a clinical psychologist would do if your child got referred for behaviour problems.

Most notably, she obviously knew her shit and is widely respected among clinical psychologists. Despite often being described as a ‘TV psychologist’ she remained working in the NHS at the coal face of clinical work.

She’s just published her review on the effects of the internet and computer games on children and has been remarkably level-headed in a time when the media loves ‘internet addiction’ and ‘computer games make killer kids’ stories.

BBC News has a video interview with her (skip to 1m20s to avoid the preamble). As well as refusing to soundbite the complexity of the issues, she’s not afraid to use uses phrases like “causal models of harm” and “research effects literature” in interviews. Go Tanya!

The full report [pdf] is long, and I’ve not read it all, but I really recommend reading the summary on pages 3-5. Here’s some key points:

4. …Overall I have found that a search for direct cause and effect in this area is often too simplistic, not least because it would in many cases be unethical to do the necessary research. However, mixed research evidence on the actual harm from video games and use of the internet does not mean that the risks do not exist. To help us measure and manage those risks we need to focus on what the child brings to the technology and use our understanding of children‚Äôs development to inform an approach that is based on the ‚Äòprobability of risk‚Äô in different circumstances.

5. We need to take into account children‚Äôs individual strengths and vulnerabilities, because the factors that can discriminate a ‚Äòbeneficial‚Äô from a ‚Äòharmful‚Äô experience online and in video games will often be individual factors in the child. The very same content can be useful to a child at a certain point in their life and development and may be equally damaging to another child. That means focusing on the child, what we know about how children‚Äôs brains develop, how they learn and how they change as they grow up. This is not straightforward ‚Äì while we can try to categorise children by age and gender there are vast individual differences that will impact on a child‚Äôs experience when gaming or online, especially the wider context in which they have developed and in which they experience the technology…

Her recommendations focus on the all too pressing point that kids often vastly outclass adults in understanding the technology and that parents are often not competent in being able to guide children as they’d wish.

Needless to say, Byron recommends that parents need support and guidance themselves in being able to regulate their children’s use of new technology.

From what I’ve read so far, it’s clear that Byron has understood both the psychological research and the technology. No mean feat in an age where commentators often demonstrate little except the fact that they are a bit baffled by this new fangled interweb thing.

Link to Byron review webpage.
Link to BBC News on the report and interview.