The consequences of faking it

I’ve just caught a short video by the brilliant behavioural economist Dan Ariely who explains the surprising effect of wearing fake goods on the likelihood of us cheating and for on much we suspect that others are being dishonest.

Ariely is riffing on one of his recent studies that was led by psychologist Francesca Gino. It’ll shortly appear in Psychological Science but can read the full text online as a pdf.

The study involved asking people to wear real or fake designer sunglasses, when in reality they were all the genuine article. Interestingly, those wearing the supposedly fake shades behaved less honestly in subsequent tests and were more likely to suspect others of behaving unethically.

Ariely gives a brilliant account of the study but there’s an interesting aspect in the full paper which he doesn’t touch on so much. In the final experiment of the study, the researchers found that it was a change in attitude that seemed to drive the change in honesty.

Wearing the ‘fake’ sunglasses seemed to increase personal feelings of being inauthentic and these feeling of the ‘counterfeit self’ were most associated with changes in behaviour.

Participants who believed they were wearing imitation goods were more likely to agree with the sentiments “Right now, I don’t know how I really feel inside” and “Right now, I feel alienated from myself” and were more like to say that they felt “out of touch with the ‚Äòreal me‚Äô” and felt as if “I don‚Äôt know myself very well”.

The study suggests that fake goods change how we perceive ourselves and this relaxes our boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

The video is short and brilliantly explained and the study is fascinating.

Link to Dan Ariely video on the effect of faking it.
pdf of full text of scientific paper.

Project HM

Patient HM became famous for having a dense surgically-induced amnesia and taking part in numerous neuropsychology studies that told us a great deal about the structure of memory. He died last year but left his brain to science and Project HM has been set up to co-ordinate the scientific analysis of his brain.

According to a post on the Project blog, the process of dissecting and digitally recording the structure of HM’s brain will begin on Wednesday 2nd December and apparently you’ll be able to watch it live via video streamed from the site.

The best write up of the Project is over at Nature News who have unfortunately jailed their article behind a pay wall. However, here’s the punch line:

On 2 December, exactly one year after Molaison’s death, [Neuroanatomist Jacopo] Annese, of the University of California, San Diego, will begin dividing the brain into roughly 2,400 slices, each thinner than a human hair, and digitizing them. Annese hopes that Molaison’s brain will become the first of many in a digital human-brain library at the university.

Annese is one of the few people with the sophisticated equipment needed to slice whole human brains, which is how he came by Molaison’s brain. Most labs cut human brains into blocks before slicing them ‚Äî the fate that befell Albert Einstein’s brain.

Annese will mount and stain about every 30th slice for cell nuclei and projections, which will allow him to map the cellular architecture in three dimensions. The remaining slices will be available to the neuroscience community, with researchers able to view the particular slice they want to study before requesting it.

Link to Project HM website.

Quack Psychologists, 1927

I’ve just found this interesting 1927 news item from Science magazine lambasting the rise of ‘quack psychologists’ that were apparently troubling the American public at the time. It’s interesting because it has a dig a two very specific groups of unorthodox psychological groups:

PSEUDO-PSYCHOLOGISTS, who promise, like fairy godmothers, to turn every-day human beings into fascinating personalities or into great financial successes, are creating large groups of discontented individuals, according to Dr. E. A. Shaw and George E. Gardner, of the Harvard University Psycho-Educational Clinic.

These two clinical psychologists state in a report to the National Committee for Mental Hygiene that “character analysts” and “practical psychologists” are responsible for many of the dissatisfied, badly adjusted cases that come to the Harvard Clinic. Gilt edge promises made to all, irrespective of ability and training, lead individuals to false hopes and discontent with kinds of work for which they are suited. And repeated failures to attain the heights so glowingly described as well within reach can lead an individual to serious mental upsets.

The psychological quack, half informed concerning scientific psychological principles, undertakes in a conference or by lectures, and for no small fee, to advise men and women about their mental and vocational ills. The two Harvard psychologists explain that “these men, we maintain – and their numbers are growing day by day – are a detriment to the mental health of the community. In their doctrines and platitudes there is just enough of truth and of falsity to make them dangerous.”

One serious result of the situation pointed out is that the work of the “analysts” becomes confused in the eyes of the public with the work of well-trained vocational advisers and directors of personality clinics who conscientiously and carefully study the individual who comes to them for help and who advise him according to his real possibilities.

The reference to “character analysts” and “practical psychologists” is not just a general dismissal of the poorly trained practitioner, it refers to two specific movements that departed from the established mainstream.

“Character analysts” undoubtedly refers to followers of analyst Willhelm Reich who was originally a follower of Freud before foolishly engaging in some free-thinking which got him kicked out of the inner circle.

His book Character Analysis departed from the traditional Freudian focus on individual symptoms to consider the interplay of the whole personality. It has become a classic in psychoanalysis but as he wandered from the Freudian path, he and his followers were ostracised.

Reich took a distinctly odd turn in later years, believing the power of orgasm, called orgone, could be stored in batteries and could be absorbed from the sky by the use of a special machine called a cloudbuster. Incidentally, this story inspired the Kate Bush song Cloubusting, which describes Reich’s obsession with the machine and his eventual downfall.

“Practical psychologists” refers to a movement of amateur psychologists that created their own popular clubs to discuss and ‘translate’ lab findings to the populace.

They saw themselves as liberating psychology from the ivory towers of the university but they were despised by academic psychologists for their uncritical thinking and, probably worse in their eyes, popularism.

The Psychologist had a great article on the growth of this movement in the UK, if you want more on what pop psychology looked like in the early 20th century.

Some years before the publication of this news piece, Freud had written his famous paper on ‘Wild Psycho-Analysis’ which clearly stated that true analysts had to toe the line and had to be taught by one of the initiated – everyone else was to be considered a dangerous amateur.

I have no idea who Dr E.A. Shaw was, but George E. Gardner was a orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis based at the prestigious McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, so you can see how they were using the talk reported in the Science piece to bolster the established Freudian approach to the mind.

Link to PubMed entry for news report.

NeuroPod covers the best of SfN

Don’t miss a special edition of the Nature NeuroPod podcast which is dedicated to highlights from the recent Society for Neuroscience annual gathering of the tribes which took place in Chicago in October.

The discussion looks at the big themes in this year’s conference, including optogenetics – the use of light stimulation to alter gene expression neuron activity with millisecond precision, society and neuroethics, and the use of techniques from stage magic to explore attention and consciousness.

A fascinating summary that clearly only scratches the surface of the biggest brain meeting on the planet but it still has plenty of shiny new gems.

Link to NeurPod homepage.
mp3 of NeuroPod Extra podcast of SfN highlights.

Think hard

Online poster shop Ork Posters! have this fantastic brain poster which is not only brilliantly designed but anatomically correct as well.

They do a Tan and Black version, which is pictured here and an identical one in Burgundy, which turns out to be a little more expensive.

So if you want some retro-typeface neuroscience fusion design on your wall, you know where to go.

Link to Ork Posters! ‘Think Hard’ print (via @mocost)

Going underground

Photo by Flickr user Annie Mole. Click for sourceSlate has a great article discussing how psychologists have used the subway as a natural laboratory to study the social psychology of humans forced to interact in strange and unusual ways during their travels across the city.

I never knew before, but it turns out there’s been quite a bit of research on the subways, metros and undergrounds of the world.

Spend enough time riding the New York City subway‚Äîor any big-city metro‚Äîand you’ll find yourself on the tenure-track to an honorary degree in transit psychology. The subway‚Äîwhich keeps random people together in a contained, observable setting‚Äîis a perfect rolling laboratory for the study of human behavior. As the sociologists M.L. Fried and V.J. De Fazio once noted, “The subway is one of the few places in a large urban center where all races and religions and most social classes are confronted with one another and the same situation.”

Or situations. The subway presents any number of discrete, and repeatable, moments of interaction, opportunities to test how “situational factors” affect outcomes. A pregnant woman appears: Who will give up his seat first? A blind man slips and falls. Who helps? Someone appears out of the blue and asks you to mail a letter. Will you? In all these scenarios much depends on the parties involved, their location on the train and the location of the train itself, and the number of other people present, among other variables. And rush-hour changes everything.

Link to Slate piece on ‘Underground Psychology’.

Harlow’s Pit of Despair

ABC Radio National’s Artworks programme interviews two creators of a new play about the mind and motivations of psychologist and serial monkey abuser Harry Harlow.

Harlow was a fascinating and troubled fellow who completed some of the most notorious studies in psychology where he raised monkeys apart from their mothers, most famously with ‘wire cage’ substitutes of various kinds.

He found that infant monkeys preferred to hang on to a wire cage ‘mother’ surrounded by cloth regardless of whether it provided food or not, suggesting to Harlow that comfort was of prime importance.

Over time his studies evolved and became increasingly cruel, until even those closest to his work felt he had gone too far.

The maternal deprivation studies are widely cited but they really told us little except the obvious fact that early relationships are important. This was widely promoted by the Neo-Freudians who felt Freud’s focus on infant sexuality was clearly missing the mark and had already been confirmed by extensive studies in children from deprived families conducted by London’s Tavistock Clinic years before.

More interesting, however, is Harlow himself – a man who was frequently depressed and estranged from his own mother, and the play deals with the psychology of this complex character.

The play is on in Melbourne, Australia but the discussion is also fascinating as the creators have clearly thought a great deal about the ethics of the research and Harlow’s own motivations.

Link to discussion on Artworks.
Link to more information about the play.