Beautiful visual illusion pendants

Tania Hennessy is a scientist who sells beautiful visual illusion necklaces over the internet under the name Aroha Silhouettes.

The one pictured is a Penrose rectangle, a type of impossible shape of which the Penrose triangle is the most famous (and you can buy one of those too!).

However, there are many other impossible objects you can get as necklaces or earrings, all designed as striking silhouettes.

And if it’s not for you, you could always buy one for the girl in your life.

How often will you ever have the opportunity to use the line “No honey, I wasn’t staring at your breasts, I was marvelling at how a relatively simple collection of edges can demonstrate the conflicting constraints of the visual perceptual system”.

Obviously, make sure she’s wearing the pendant at the time. It’s not an all purpose excuse.

Link to Aroha Silhouettes (via Microservios).

Why are people reluctant to exchange lottery tickets?

I’ve just found this wonderful study that investigated why people are reluctant to exchange lottery tickets before the draw – when each is equally as likely to win the jackpot.

It seems that swapping the ticket sparks images of it winning the lottery. This tends to make us think it’s more likely to occur because the possibility becomes more vivid and hence holds more weight in our minds when we’re trying to judge likelihood – a cognitive bias known as the availability heuristic.

I found the paper on psychologist Jane Risen’s website, whose work on ‘one shot illusory correlations’ and minority stereotyping we featured the other day.

Another look at why people are reluctant to exchange lottery tickets.

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2007 Jul;93(1):12-22.

Risen JL, Gilovich T.

People are reluctant to exchange lottery tickets, a result that previous investigators have attributed to anticipated regret. The authors suggest that people’s subjective likelihood judgments also make them disinclined to switch. Four studies examined likelihood judgments with respect to exchanged and retained lottery tickets and found that (a) exchanged tickets are judged more likely to win a lottery than are retained tickets and (b) exchanged tickets are judged more likely to win the more aversive it would be if the ticket did win. The authors provide evidence that this effect occurs because the act of imagining an exchanged ticket winning the lottery increases the belief that such an event is likely to occur.

I love studies on the quirks of human psychology. While they often have wider implications and help us understand more general principals of our thought and behaviour, in this case – the role of imagination in fuelling cognitive biases, they are also wonderful windows into the curiosities everyday reasoning.

By the way, psychologist Thomas Gilovich is a co-author on both of these studies. He’s also the author of one of the best books on cognitive biases, called How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (ISBN 0029117062) which I highly recommend.

Link to paper.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Dreaming of demons

The Boston Globe has a brief interview with dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley who has just written a book on the history of dreaming in the world’s religions.

Bulkeley notes in the interview that his book attempts to look at common themes from various dreams described in the religious literature, and draws out how they might reflect common aspects of human experience.

It sounds like an historical anthropology of dreaming with a view to understanding the significance of dreams for some of the most influential movements in our culture.

You argue that modern science can learn about dreaming from religion. Do you have a favorite example that you use when talking to scientists?

BULKELEY: Well, consider this particular kind of nightmare dream that recurs again and again in religious texts. In the Christian tradition they talk about the incubus, or the demons of the night. In Newfoundland, it’s the old hag and so on. But what all these various religions agree on is that there’s a type of nightmare that’s very intense and involves the constriction of breathing or paralysis. Now we know, thanks to modern science, that this is a real class of dream called night terrors and they’re very different from ordinary nightmares. So all these texts that talk about night terrors, they’re actually describing a real element of human experience.

One of my favourite books on dream themes is somewhat less serious. I Dream of Madonna is a beautifully illustrated book that collects women’s dream about the Material Girl.

Link to Kelly Bulkeley interview (via Frontal Cortex).
Link to more info about the book.

Doubting lie detectors and blushing beauties

Today’s New Scientist has an interesting follow-up letter to a recent article on whether brain scan lie-detection could ever be reliable court evidence. The article noted that the traditional and flawed lie polygraph lie-detector test had been questioned in the past, and the letter notes an earlier example of the test being criticised in an insightful short story:

Doubts about the use of polygraphs have been around for much longer than you report (4 October, p 8). In G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story The Mistake of the Machine, published in 1914, a polygraph detects stress in a prisoner accused of murdering Lord Falconroy. The reason isn’t guilt: the prisoner is in fact Lord Falconroy, in disguise and anxious to stay undiscovered.

Chesterton wrote that polygraph scientists “must be as sentimental as a man who thinks a woman is in love with him if she blushes. That’s a test from the circulation of the blood, discovered by the immortal Harvey; and a jolly rotten test, too.”

If you’re not sure quite how unreliable polygraph lie-detector tests are, I recommend an earlier article on Mind Hacks that is worth reading solely for the story of the falsely convicted Floyd ‘Buzz’ Fay, who trained 20 fellow inmates to fool the lie detector test to help prove his innocence. All while behind bars.

You gotta respect that.

Link to letter.
Link to Mind Hacks on polygraph hacking.

Through the eyes of the psychopath

The New Yorker has an engaging article about psychopaths and what psychologists are starting to learn about the psychology and neuroscience of people who are thought to lack empathy.

Psychopathy doesn’t necessarily imply violence. The most commonly used modern definition, based on the work of psychologist Robert Hare, suggests that psychopathy includes things like a lack of conscience, manipulative behaviour, impulsiveness and an anti-social lifestyle.

The condition was first described clinically in 1801, by the French surgeon Philippe Pinel. He called it ‘mania without delirium.’ In the early nineteenth century, the American surgeon Benjamin Rush wrote about a type of ‘moral derangement’ in which the sufferer was neither delusional nor psychotic but nevertheless engaged in profoundly antisocial behavior, including horrifying acts of violence. Rush noted that the condition appeared early in life. The term ‘moral insanity‘ became popular in the mid-nineteenth century, and was widely used in the U.S. and in England to describe incorrigible criminals. The word ‘psychopath’ (literally, ‘suffering soul’) was coined in Germany in the eighteen-eighties. By the nineteen-twenties, ‘constitutional psychopathic inferiority,’ had become the catchall phrase psychiatrists used for a general mixture of violent and antisocial characteristics found in irredeemable criminals, who appeared to lack a conscience.

In the late nineteen-thirties, an American psychiatrist named Hervey Cleckley began collecting data on a certain kind of patient he encountered in the course of his work in a psychiatric hospital in Augusta, Georgia. These people were from varied social and family backgrounds. Some were poor, but others were sons of Augusta‚Äôs most prosperous and respected families. Cleckley set about sharpening the vague construct of constitutional psychopathic inferiority, and distinguishing it from other forms of mental illness. He eventually isolated sixteen traits exhibited by patients he called ‘primary’ psychopaths; these included being charming and intelligent, unreliable, dishonest, irresponsible, self-centered, emotionally shallow, and lacking in empathy and insight.

However, the article focuses on the work of psychologist Kent Kiehl who has completed a great deal of recent brain imaging research on criminal psychopaths, and argues that the core problem is a dysfunction of the paralimbic system.

This includes areas such as the orbital frontal cortex, anterior cingulate and amygdala, that are known to be involved in emotional reactions and often thought to be involved particularly in social interaction and empathy.

However, as the article recounts, getting inmates at maximum security prisons involved in cognitive science research has its own special challenges. Although this seem to have been somewhat mitigated by Kiehl’s use of a portable fMRI machine.

To be honest, the article focuses a little too much on the personalities, particularly when the science is so interesting, but it does cover the bases well and does make for an engaging read.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Suffering Souls’.

What’s driving voter decison-making

The Association for Psychological Science magazine Observer has an interesting article that tackles what cognitive science has told us about how voters choose their candidate.

It reiterates the common finding that emotional feelings toward a particular candidate or party has more sway that more factual information.

In 2005, Emory University political psychologist Drew Westen and his colleagues published a study in which they correctly predicted people’s views on political issues based solely on their emotions. When the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in March 1998, the psychologists quizzed participants to gauge their knowledge of Clinton and the details of the scandal. Then they asked emotion-based questions about how participants felt about Clinton as a person, how they felt about the Democratic and Republican parties, and how they felt about infidelity in general. Months later, before the Congressional impeachment trial began in December, they called the participants back and asked them a series of questions along the lines of “Do you think what the president has been accused of doing meets the standard set forth in the Constitution for an impeachable offense?”

Using only what they knew about the respondents’ emotions, the researchers were able to correctly predict their views on impeachment 85 percent of the time. Knowledge meant little: When they factored in what the respondents actually knew about the situation and the Constitutional requirements for impeachment, they only improved the accuracy of their predictions by three percent.

Interestingly, the article suggests that economic issues – probably the most important concern in the current US election – are the ones that are least likely to be affected by emotion.

Emotion still plays a big part even in economic reasoning though, and I’ve always been curious to know more about how fact-based versus emotion-based reasoning interacts. For example, how much are emotions just a summary ‘opinion’ formed by individuals after considering the facts.

Unfortunately, unlike the one mentioned above, most studies in this area are of cross-sections and so don’t say much about how these two forms of reasons interact over time.

However, one source of reasoning not mention in this piece is superstition. Luckily, Psychology Today has a short piece that has picked out some sources of magical thinking from the current presidential race.

Link to article ‘This is Your Brain on Politics’ (via BPSRD).
Link to piece on ‘Election Superstitions’.

Sine-wave speech

Tom and Matt wrote about the remarkable phenomenon of ‘sine-wave speech’ in the Mind Hacks book (Hack #49) but I was just reminded of it recently (thanks Alex!) and I am always struck about what a great effect it is.

If you’re not familiar with it, I recommend psychologist Matt Davis’ webpage that explains the effect and has some fantastic examples.

Essentially, what initially sounds like random whistling sounds comes together as coherent speech when you know what you’re listening out for.

It’s a striking effect and is a wonderful demonstration of how prior knowledge and expectations can affect perception.

Link to Matt Davis’ sine-wave speech page.

Trans children – trapped in a body, mind or society?

The Atlantic magazine has an excellent article about the heated issues raised by children who want to be the opposite sex. It’s an excellent piece that captures both the dilemmas of parents and mental health professionals sparked by potentially transgendered children.

I sometimes jokingly suggest that clinical child psychology would be better described as clinical parent psychology, owing to the fact that it almost always involves working as much with the parents’ anxieties as the child’s.

This is particularly important when it comes to behaviours which are not considered, in themselves, to be physically or mentally damaging, but which are socially unacceptable or stigmatised, because the pressure often takes the form of others wishing the child would conform to social norms.

The Atlantic article gives some vivid examples of some of the pressures, as the child, mother, father, professionals, peers and campaigning groups each have different opinions on how to manage a young child that dresses and acts like a child of the opposite sex.

As we discussed in a post about an NPR programme that covered the same territory, one of the big controversies is whether to try and treat the child to identify with their birth sex, or whether to help them cope with the stresses of adjusting to life as a transgendered child.

This is complicated by the fact that follow-up studies have shown that not all children who have cross-gender desires when young maintain them through puberty. However, hormone treatment exists which can delay puberty so it makes it easier for a child to pass as the opposite sex if this is thought the best course of action.

The Atlantic piece is a remarkably well-researched piece that covers a great deal of the mental health debate about the practice and ethics of treating what are known as ‘gender dysphoric’ children, but also gives us a revealing insight into some of the family and social dynamics that affect the individuals.

A compelling and thought-provoking insight into this contested area.

Link to Atlantic article ‘A Boy’s Life’.
Link to previous Mind Hacks piece on ‘gender identity disorder’.

Lesbians – unicyle and be counted

A single instance of unusual behaviour by a minority group may be enough for us to stereotype the whole group according to recent research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Led by psychologist Jane Risen, the researchers ran four experiments that suggest that the reason we tend to think a single notable behaviour is typical of a minority group but not a majority group is because of our inbuilt cognitive biases in how we process anomalous information.

During the study participants were shown a series of sentences that described a group and a behaviour. The researchers found that just one report of a seemingly odd behaviour by a minority group member was focused on for longer and was more memorable.

Furthermore, participants were more likely to think that group membership was more like to be an explanation for the odd behaviour for minorities than in more representative groups.

In a final experiment, participants watched a video interview of either a white or Asian student where, rather unusually, they persistently asked to use the camera in a pushy manner.

Afterwards, the participants were shown a picture of another person, again either white or Asian. In one part the person was holding up words with missing letters than the participants had to fill in to complete the word.

For example, the prompt could have been “D E _ _ N D”, which can equally well be completed as “DEPEND” or “DEMAND”.

This sort of technique is often used in psychology because things that are already active in the mind, such as emotions, concepts or stereotypes, will unconsciously influence the participant to complete the word in one of the two ways.

DEPEND is a positive word, whereas DEMAND is related to pushiness, so if a video of a pushy Asian student only affects word completion presented by another unrelated Asian person and not when presented by a white person, you can see the behaviour has activated a race specific bias.

This is exactly what happened. The researchers confirmed the effect by a follow-up task where participants were asked to select interview questions for an unrelated white or Asian person, where they tended to select questions that enquired about how brazen the interviewee might be for the minority group.

This study was published in 2007 and I’ve only just discovered it. I’m surprised I’ve not heard of it before as it strikes me as an incredibly important study on the psychology of stereotype formation.

The researchers call it ‘one shot illusory correlation’ and I wonder if it also explains the ‘my bad holiday’ effect where people say they “don’t like the British [or whoever], because I went on holiday there once and someone was rude to me”.

Obviously, the person was not a minority in their country, but was in the context of the visitor’s life.

By the way, the paper is also very well written and the introduction is well worth reading solely for it’s engaging introduction to the area.

Link to study article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.