Experimental philosophy of others’ intentions

Photo by Flickt user nick russill. Click for sourceToday’s ABC Radio National All in the Mind has a fascinating discussion on how we attribute intentions to other people which covers some surprising and counter-intuitive examples of how our understanding of other people’s desires are biased by the situation.

There’s a great example depicted in this YouTube video which I highly recommend, but essentially the example is this:

A vice president of a large company goes to the CEO and says “We have a new business plan. It will make huge amounts of money for the company, but it will also harm the environment”.

The CEO says “I know the plan will harm the environment, but I don’t care about that, I’m just interested in making as much money as we possibly can. So let’s put the plan into action”.

The company starts the plan, and the environment is harmed.

The question is, did the CEO harm the environment intentionally? As it turns out, most people say yes to this question.

Now have a think about this similar scenario.

A vice president of a large company goes to the CEO and says “We have a new business plan. It will make huge amounts of money for the company, but it will also help the environment”.

The CEO says “I know the plan will help the environment, but I don’t care about that, I’m just interested in making as much money as we possibly can. So let’s put the plan into action”.

The company starts the plan, and the environment is helped.

The question is the same – did the CEO intentionally help the environment in this case.

Curiously, most people say no. Despite the CEO making the same decision in both cases.

The programme is full of many more fascinating examples of how our judgement of intention is affected by the outcome rather than the decision the person makes.

However, I wonder whether our judgements are clouded by the notion of responsibility rather than purely intention, where we place much greater social weight on responsibility for damaging actions, than beneficial ones.

This area is largely being explored by the new area of ‘experimental philosophy‘ that aims to empirically test our assumptions about traditionally philosophical issues.

Link to AITM on ‘The philosophy of good intentions’.

Car crash over before consciousness kicks in

This is a fascinating run down of an ‘anatomy of a crash’ from Australian car magazine Drive suggesting that the accident can be over before we’re even consciously aware of it happening.

This is a reconstruction of a crash involving a stationary Ford Falcon XT sedan being struck in the driver’s door by another vehicle travelling at 50 km/h.

0 milliseconds – An external object touches the driver’s door.

1 ms – The car’s door pressure sensor detects a pressure wave.

2 ms – An acceleration sensor in the C-pillar behind the rear door also detects a crash event.

2.5 ms – A sensor in the car’s centre detects crash vibrations.

5 ms – Car’s crash computer checks for insignificant crash events, such as a shopping trolley impact or incidental contact. It is still working out the severity of the crash. Door intrusion structure begins to absorb energy.

6.5 ms – Door pressure sensor registers peak pressures.

7 ms – Crash computer confirms a serious crash and calculates its actions.

8 ms – Computer sends a “fire” signal to side airbag. Meanwhile, B-pillar begins to crumple inwards and energy begins to transfer into cross-car load path beneath the occupant.

8.5 ms – Side airbag system fires.

15 ms – Roof begins to absorb part of the impact. Airbag bursts through seat foam and begins to fill.

17 ms – Cross-car load path and structure under rear seat reach maximum load. Airbag covers occupant’s chest and begins to push the shoulder away from impact zone.

20 ms – Door and B-pillar begin to push on front seat. Airbag begins to push occupant’s chest away from the impact.

27 ms – Impact velocity has halved from 50 km/h to 23.5 km/h. A “pusher block” in the seat moves occupant’s pelvis away from impact zone. Airbag starts controlled deflation.

30 ms – The Falcon has absorbed all crash energy. Airbag remains in place. For a brief moment, occupant experiences maximum force equal to 12 times the force of gravity.

45 ms – Occupant and airbag move together with deforming side structure.

50 ms – Crash computer unlocks car’s doors. Passenger safety cell begins to rebound, pushing doors away from occupant.

70 ms – Airbag continues to deflate. Occupant moves back towards middle of car.

Engineers classify crash as “complete”.

150-300 ms – Occupant becomes aware of collision.

The video of the crash test, from which is the above is taken, is also available online.

As you can see, it’s a lab-based crash test and so doesn’t capture the messiness of many real world impacts.

I checked out their figure for conscious awareness kicking in at 150-300ms and it seems to be accurate and mostly taken from the work of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet.

There’s a good 2004 review article from the Archives of Neurology that actually cites 300ms as the start of conscious awareness, some other reviews cite 200ms as a ‘rule of thumb’ figure.

Link to Drive on ‘Anatomy of a Crash’ (<a href="http://www.sentientdevelopments.com/2009/02/will-you-perceive-event-that-kills-you.html
“>via Sentient Developments).
Link to paper on ‘Neuronal Mechanisms of Conscious Awareness’.

2009-02-20 Spike activity

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

I’ve just discovered the excellent Psychology of Beauty blog.

3QuarksDaily has an interview with cognitive science philosopher Shaun Gallagher on psychotic delusions and multiple realities.

Missed this a few weeks ago: an interesting article from The New York Times on using social information on energy bills to increase energy efficiency.

Brain Hammer has just sprung into life again with a series of interesting posts.

The Colonization of Pharmaceutical Science by Marketing. Somatosphere covers the interface between medicine and marketing.

The Morning News has a great list of ‘Mindfuck Movies‘ – classics with a psychological twist. Definitely check out La Jet√©e, awesome original inspiration for 12 Monkeys.

Attendance at religious services, but not religious devotion, predicts support for suicide attacks, reports Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Dr Shock tracks the varying trends in the rise and fall of ECT treatment in Europe.

Think you’d remember the face of your torturer? Unlikely suggests a new study reported by Wired.

The Boston Globe has an article on legal wranglings and human stories related to killings related to the US Army’s ‘Human Terrain System’. Wired notes the HTS pay scale has been greatly reduced.

Five minutes with the authors of two recent influential psychological studies on TV commercials and East – West facial recognition from the BPS Research Digest.

Seed Magazine briefly covers new research suggesting oxytocin plays a key role in social memory.

Another good one from Not Exactly Rocket Science, one of the few places to correctly report on the latest propranolol trauma dampening study.

Does philosophy tells us about the world or our concepts? Eric Schwitzgebel explores the two key concepts in philosophy.

The Fortean Times has an excellent article on the surprising range of behaviour reported to occur during sleep walking.

Is genius born or can it be learned? asks Time magazine.

Neuroanthropology has a fascinating commentary on measuring basketball success with stats and why traditional stats may reflect little about a player’s ability, although it has wider implications for how we understand and measure human abilities.

The New York Times has an article on the emerging neuroscience of envy.

More ‘Facebook causes cancer’ debunking from PsychCentral.

The Monthly magazine hosts a video lecture by Norman Doidge, author of The Brain that Changes Itself. Presented by Natasha Mitchell of Mind Hacks favourite All in the Mind.

Dodgy war in Afghanistan heroin seizure statistics are subjected to the cold hard light of data by Bad Science.

Furious Seasons tackles a recent ‘scary’ editorial in the journal Current Psychiatry.

Weird Science in MIT’s AI Lab, 1966

I just found this photo in the Life magazine archive. It’s from 1966 and entitled ‘MIT student using a MAC computer for project study of artificial intelligence’.

Is it me, or does the young student bear an uncanny resemblance to Anthony Michael Hall in the 80s film Weird Science where two computer geeks use an early micro computer to programme their ideal woman in the form of the lovely Kelly LeBrock?

Unfortunately, I can’t find any of the classic images of the boys at their computer creating the digital Ms LeBrock for you to compare, but here’s one where you can see the uncanny MIT photo / Weird Science similarity.

So just what were MIT researching in the mid-60s?

UPDATE: We have another photo! Thanks to Daniel for suggesting this one.

Link to photo in Life archive.

Encephalon 64 powers up

The 64th edition of the Encephalon psychology and writing carnival has just appeared on The Neurocritic and is waiting for your rapt attention.

It’s a wonderfully put-together edition and a couple of my favourites include an article on the surprising fact that the doctor whose name lives on in ‘Tourette’s Syndrome’ was shot in the back by a patient, and a piece on psychosis, dopamine and salience dysregulation.

There’s plenty more (and I mean plenty more, videos and all) in the latest edition, so head over to browse the menu.

Link to Encephalon 64.

The Psychologist on stigma, statistics and S&M

The British Psychological Society’s monthly magazine The Psychologist is continuing to dip its toes into the world of open-access and has made the entire March edition freely available online.

A couple of articles stand out. The first is on stigma that discusses studies on how we internally structure information and notes that even here, the golden ratio may play a role, with a crucial 68% / 32% split on negative and positive information being linked to stigmatised people.

The other is a surprising article on an interpretation of the sexually explicit sado-masochist novel The Story of O in light of Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.

More tea vicar?

In comparison, my page 9 column on language-dependent psychosis rather pales in comparison.

The magazine is available as an embedded document, so you get to see the whole magazine as it appears in print, although I’m not sure you can link to individual papers so you’ll have to explore!

Link to March edition of The Psychologist.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional columnist and unpaid member of the editoral board for The Psychologist.

Facebook causes marble loss

Photo by Flickr user chefranden. Click for sourceYou know that awkward feeling you get when you stop laughing because you realise the person you’re talking to isn’t actually joking? I’ve just had it after reading the news reports that tell us ‘Facebook raises cancer risk’, ruining what I thought was a very funny parody.

They’re based on an appalling article by psychologist Aric Sigman which was published in the magazine Biologist. You can read it online as a pdf and it is a wonderful example of cherry-picking evidence and citing correlations as causes.

His claim is that electronic media, and particularly the use of social networking sites, are leading us to interact face-to-face less and that this has health risks.

So what evidence does Sigman cite to support his claim that social networking sites and face-to-face interaction are linked – a correlation showing that as social media use has increased, face-to-face interaction has decreased. Really, that’s it, and as we shall see it’s largely nonsense.

He then goes on to cite evidence that subjective loneliness is associated with various biological effects and health risks.

The last bit is well supported, loneliness is associated with negative health risks, but Sigman neglects to cite any studies that test the link between face-to-face interaction and the use of services such as Facebook.

This is not surprising, because so far, they’ve typically found that people who who these sites actually feel more socially connected and have better social ties.

Like this study that found that students use Facebook to enhance relationships they already formed in real life, or this study that found that Facebook use was associated with greater levels of social capital and psychological well-being.

In contrast, the link between loneliness and internet communication has not been reliably established and it is notable to we have almost nothing but correlational studies. So we don’t know whether internet communication increases loneliness in some people, or whether lonely people just use the internet to try and make themselves less lonely.

In fact, studies have reported correlations in both directions. Interestingly, while the early studies tended to find a link, later studies have been much less likely to do so, and in fact, many find exactly the opposite to what Sigman claims, but these are not mentioned.

For example, like one study that found that older adults who use the internet more report lower levels of loneliness, or this study in children that found internet use was associated with less loneliness, or this study that found no link in adolescents.

I’d like to be charitable and assume that this one-sidedness was down to ignorance, but the conclusion of the article makes me think it was deliberate cherry-picking. He writes:

A decade ago, a detailed classic study of 73 families who used the internet for communication, The Internet Paradox, concluded that greater use of the internet was associated with declines in communication between family members in the house, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their levels of depression and loneliness. They went on to report ‚Äúboth social disengagement and worsening of mood… and limited face-to-face social interaction… poor quality of life and diminished physical and psychological health‚Äù (Kraut et al, 1998).

This study was indeed a classic. It was so important that the same research team followed up the same participants several years later and published their results in a study called Internet Paradox Revisted that you can read online as a pdf file.

What they found was that the negative effects reported in the first study, except for a measure of daily hassles, had disappeared, and that the internet use was associated with better a social life:

Internet was associated with mainly positive outcomes over a range of dependent variables measuring social involvement and psychological well-being, local and distant social circle, face-to-face communication, community involvement, trust in people, positive affect, and unsurprisingly, computer skill.

Just typing ‘internet paradox’ into Google brings up both studies, but the second seems to be missing.

The article is quite clearly drivel if you spend more than 20 seconds on Google, but it seems to have been swallowed by most mainstream press outlets without question.

What is it about mentioning the internet that makes the press lose their marbles? I blame it on not using the internet.