Francis Crick inadvertently raises criminal robot army

Scientific American’s Mind Matters blog covers an interesting study that found that altering people’s belief in free will also altered the likelihood of participants being dishonest in a test of mental ability.

To achieve this, the study used part of Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis that argues against the everyday concept of free will on the basis of neurobiology.

Half of the participants got a passage saying that there is no such thing as free will. The passage begins as follows: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”

The passage then goes on to talk about the neural basis of decisions and claims that ‚Äú…although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.‚Äù The other participants got a passage that was similarly scientific-sounding, but it was about the importance of studying consciousness, with no mention of free will.

After reading the passages, all participants completed a survey on their belief in free will. Then comes the inspired part of the experiment. Participants were told to complete 20 arithmetic problems that would appear on the computer screen. But they were also told that when the question appeared, they needed to press the space bar, otherwise a computer glitch would make the answer appear on the screen, too. The participants were told that no one would know whether they pushed the space bar, but they were asked not to cheat.

The results were clear: those who read the anti-free will text cheated more often! (That is, they pressed the space bar less often than the other participants.) Moreover, the researchers found that the amount a participant cheated correlated with the extent to which they rejected free will in their survey responses.

I wonder how specific this is to a general belief in us lacking free will, or whether it’s more specifically to do with a similar belief but which is particularly tied up with the mechanistic concept that Crick discusses – i.e. we’re all just the function of lots of little parts.

The reason I’m wondering this is because the twelve-step approach to addiction recovery has two free-will reducing principles at its core – namely an admission that you are not in control of your addiction and the belief that you have to give yourself up to a ‘higher power’.

The Mind Matters article goes on to discuss the various interpretations of the study and how it fits with our understanding of the philosophy of free will.

Link to Mind Matters on ‘Free Will vs. the Programmed Brain’ (via fc).
pdf of full text of study.

Placebo – interactive ingredients

BBC Radio 4 has just broadcast the first part of a fantastic two part series on placebo, the most effective evidence-based treatment known to science.

It’s written and presented by Bad Science’s Ben Goldacre and is a wonderful trip through the history and science of what we know about this most psychological of treatments.

One of the most interesting recent placebo findings has been that children show a greater placebo response than adults as demonstrated in a systematic analysis of epilepsy treatment trials.

This matches up with the fact that children and generally more hypnotically suggestible than adults.

Various studies in the 1960s and 70s tracked hypnotisability through childhood and found that susceptibility to suggestion varies as a function of age. This summary is from p120 of the excellent academic book The Highly Hypnotizable Person:

Around the age of 7 children show measurable hypnotic ability, which appear to increase until around the age of 12, where it seems to peak. If then appears to plateau for about two years, decreases moderately during adolescence, and then remains stable during early and middle adulthood.

While both placebo and hypnotisability involve the general concept of ‘suggestion’ it’s not been clear whether they reflect the same things at work.

However, recent work by psychologist Amir Raz has suggesting that both hypnosis and placebo may both work through the manipulation of attention, essentially influencing the focus of processing within the brain to alter how it regulates the body and mind.

Link to Placebo programme webpage and audio archive.
Link to full text of placebo in children paper.
Link to Amir Raz paper on placebo, hypnotizability and attention.

Judging trustworthiness in the face

The Boston Globe has a fantastic article on the psychology of trustworthiness judgements and how they can be taken advantage of by con-men.

The article explores studies which have looked at various influences on our judgements of trust. One of the most interesting parts is where they cover research that has systematically altered pictures until the researchers generated faces that seem the least trustworthy (picture of the left) and most trustworthy (picture of the right).

According to recent work by Nikolaas Oosterhof and Alexander Todorov of Princeton’s psychology department, we form our first opinions of someone’s trustworthiness through a quick physiognomic snapshot. By studying people’s reactions to a range of artificially-generated faces, Oosterhof and Todorov were able to identify a set of features that seemed to engender trust. Working from those findings, they were able to create a continuum: faces with high inner eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones struck people as trustworthy, faces with low inner eyebrows and shallow cheekbones untrustworthy.

In a paper [pdf] published in June, they suggested that our unconscious bias is a byproduct of more adaptive instincts: the features that make a face strike us as trustworthy, if exaggerated, make a face look happy – with arching inner eyebrows and upturned mouths – and an exaggerated “untrustworthy” face looks angry – with a furrowed brow and frown. In this argument, people with “trustworthy” faces simply have, by the luck of the genetic draw, faces that look a little more cheerful to us.

Just as in other cognitive shorthands, we make these judgments quickly and unconsciously – and as a result, Oosterhof and Todorov point out, we can severely and immediately misjudge people. In reality, of course, cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc have no relationship with honesty.

There’s plenty more fascinating studies discussed in the article, including an amazing study found that people are more likely to take the advice of someone who has bought the same volume of paint as them compared with someone who buys a different volume of paint!

Link to Boston Globe article ‘Confidence game’.
pdf of study of facial structure and trustworthiness.

The best jobs in life are free

The BPS Research Digest covers a recent study finding that volunteers are actually more committed than paid staff in an organisation, in line with studies showing that payment tends to reduce people’s productivity and enjoyment for the same work compared to when it’s done for free.

A recent study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics tested this by asking students to complete ‘IQ test’ style questions for varying amounts of money, or by ‘incentivising’ some students on a charity collection day while others collected for free.

In this paper we have provided quantitatively precise evidence, in a controlled environment, of the effect of the introduction of monetary compensation on performance, which includes a precise comparison of the cases in which the reward was given in different quantities or not given at all. The result has been that the usual prediction of higher performance with higher compensation, when one is offered, has been confirmed: but the performance may be lower because of the introduction of the compensation.

In other words, those who were paid more worked harder than those who were paid less, but the hardest work was done by those not paid anything at all.

Link to BPSRD on the commitment of volunteers.
Link to summary of payment and productivity paper.
pdf of full-text.

Neurowar report online

After some exploring of links, the ‘neurowar’ report we mentioned the other day is freely available online, albeit in a non-portable format that doesn’t seem to be displayed very reliably.

Some pages don’t seem to load and I assumed this was to restrict the online version but it turns out it’s just a bit badly set up. However, with a bit of patience and a few page reloads it’s quite readable.

The report makes links between emerging areas of cognitive science and the ‘Potential Intelligence and Military Applications of Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies’.

If you want a slightly briefer summary, a pdf of the executive summary is also available online.

Why they just can’t release the whole thing as a PDF is still, however, a mystery.

Or just in pill form. They can do that, can’t they?

Link to online report.
pdf of executive summary.

Encephalon 52 raises its hand

The 52nd edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just arrived, this time hosted by the excellent Ouroboros.

A couple of my favourites include a post on the latest science of ‘grandmother cells‘ at the combining cognits blog (the new name for the excellent ‘Memoirs of a Postgrad’) and another on neuroimaging and social attachment style on the new-to-me but engaging Neurotic Physiology.

There’s plenty more article in this fortnight’s edition, so have a look and see what sparks your curiosity.

Link to Encephalon 52.

Tweaking with Sherlock Holmes

I just found this fascinating aside on Sherlock Holmes in a 1973 paper on amphetamine psychosis, suggesting that the cocaine-using Holmes displayed the classic repetitive behaviour often seen in frequent users of dopamine-acting stimulants.

The paper discusses what was known about the pharmacology of amphetamine in the early 1970s and how it relates to psychosis, but starts with an excellent description of the effects of chronic speed use.

One of these constellations involves an intense feeling of curiosity, often manifested by repetitious, stereotyped examining, searching, and sorting behaviors. This repetitious activity has been variously called “punding”, “hung-up activity”, “obsessive-compulsive tendencies”, and “knick-knacking” (by inhabitants of the Haight-Ashbury scene).

Its characteristic feature is engagement in tasks that primarily involve small bits or minutiae and a marked enhancement of perceptual acuity directed toward these minute objects. At times there are perceptuo-motor compulsions, manifested as repetitious stringing of beads or as acts of arranging, sorting, and lining up pebbles, rocks, or other small objects. Most of the so-called “speed art” is replete with complicated syntheses of a multitude of minute details, often depicting universal themes or mandalas. Speed users are frequently observed taking apart such objects as television sets, watches, radios, and phonographs.

Subsequently, the parts may be analyzed, arranged, sorted, filed, and cataloged and, rarely, put back together. Many patients report a sense of satisfaction associated with this compulsive-like conduct. Perhaps the best-known example of searching and examining behavior is that of Sherlock Holmes, whose cocaine habit was described by Dr. Watson:

Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction. Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance…

‚ÄúIt is cocaine,‚Äù he [Holmes] said, ‚Äúa seven-per-cent solution… I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment…

‚ÄúMy mind,‚Äù he said, ‚Äúrebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world…

“To the trained eye there is as much difference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff of a bird’s-eye as there is between a cabbage and a potato.” “You have an extraordinary genius for minutiae,” I [Watson] remarked (The Sign of the Four, pp. 610-612).

Holmes’s description of his “grooving on” puzzles and cryptograms and his penchant for magnificent synthesis of details to solve a given case are quite analogous to the amphetamine addict’s intense curiosity and preoccupation with minutiae. Even at a low point in the drug-use cycle, these persons will seek out stimulating mechanical or intellectual puzzles. This compulsion for analysis is widely recognized in the “speed scene.”

Of course, cocaine wasn’t the only drug Holmes dabbled in, as he was also a user of opium and tabacco, but it’s interesting that the author of the paper makes a link between Holmes’ cocaine use, and both his investigative style and ‘knick-knacking’ between cases.

Link to full text of paper.
Link to PubMed entry.