Easy tiger

Psychologist Jesse Bering has written one of the most remarkable popular science articles I have read in a very long time that discusses, believe it or not, zoophilia or the sexual attraction to animals. The piece for Scientific American is surprising, unnerving, hilarious, frightening and thought-provoking, all in equal measure.

The article considers to what extent sexual attraction to animals is a perversion, opportunistic sex act or a genuine sexual orientation and gives a comprehensive review of the (admittedly few) scientific studies in the area.

But the stereotypical portrait of the zoophile as a woman-deprived, down-on-the-farm, and poorly educated male is presently being challenged by some contemporary findings. The most fascinating of these, in my opinion, is a set of two case studies published by University of Montreal psychologist Christopher Earls and his colleague Martin Lalumière, of the University of Lethbridge. The first case study appeared in 2002 in the journal Sexual Abuse and documented the story of a low-IQ’ed, antisocial, fifty-four-year-old convict who had a strong sexual interest in horses. In fact, this was why he was in prison for the fourth time on related offenses; in the latest incident, he had cruelly killed a mare out of jealousy because he thought she’d been giving eyes to a certain stallion. (You thought you had issues.)

The man’s self-reported sexual interest in mares was actually verified by a controlled, phallometric study. When hooked up to a penile plethysmograph [a hard-on measuring device] and shown nude photos of all varieties and ages of humans, the man was decidedly flaccid. Nothing happening down there either when he looked at slides of cats, dogs, sheep, chickens, or cows. But he certainly wasn’t impotent, as the researchers clearly observed when the subject was shown images of horses.


The documentary Animal Passions is a serious attempt to understand the motivations of people who are sexually attracted to animals. Many of the people claim, apparently sincerely, to want to be in fulfilling romantic relationships with other species. Needless to say, it is similarly eye-opening. Although unnerving at times, it is not gratuitious and, in fact, is available on YouTube.

Bering discusses what science and philosophy makes of these unusual attractions and does a fantastic job of covering a difficult topic.

Link to Bering’s article on zoophilia at Scientific American.

Opening the mind to moral persuasion

This week’s Nature has an article arguing that the recently popular field of moral psychology has neglected the role of public debate and personal reflection in the development of our morality.

The piece is by psychologist Paul Bloom, well known for his work on how we solve ethical problems – something which has become a hot topic in recent years as traditionally philosophical issues have been taken into the lab.

Indeed, many psychologists think that the reasoned arguments we make about why we have certain beliefs are mostly post-hoc justifications for gut reactions. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, although we like to think of ourselves as judges, reasoning through cases according to deeply held principles, in reality we are more like lawyers, making arguments for positions that have already been established. This implies we have little conscious control over our sense of right and wrong.

I predict that this theory of morality will be proved wrong in its wholesale rejection of reason. Emotional responses alone cannot explain one of the most interesting aspects of human nature: that morals evolve. The extent of the average person’s sympathies has grown substantially and continues to do so. Contemporary readers of Nature, for example, have different beliefs about the rights of women, racial minorities and homosexuals compared with readers in the late 1800s, and different intuitions about the morality of practices such as slavery, child labour and the abuse of animals for public entertainment. Rational deliberation and debate have played a large part in this development.

If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, I recommend a 2008 article from Prospect magazine that gives a great introduction to the field.

Link to Nature article ‘How do morals change?’
Link to Prospect article ‘The emerging moral psychology’.

For Kitty Jay

This is the final resting place of Kitty Jay.

The site, known as Jay’s Grave lies on the edge of Dartmoor, in England’s West Country. No one really knows the full story of her life, as the details have been lost in time, but the tragic tale usually goes something like this.

Kitty Jay was a teenage orphan, probably in the late 1700s, who was given a job in a local farm as an apprentice and later became pregnant by the farmer’s son. Some stories say she fell in love, others that she was raped, but either way, was considered to be an outcast, such was the attitude of the time.

In despair, she hung herself at the farm and this is where she lies. Although we know little about her life, we can infer a few things from her last moments from her now peaceful resting place.

Suicide, then usually referred to as self-murder, was a stigmatised act in the 1700s. In an article on the changing attitudes towards suicide at the time, historian Michael MacDonald describes how:

Self-murderers were tried posthumously by a coroner’s jury, and if they were found to have been responsible for their actions savage penalties were enforced against them and their families. They were declared to have been felones de se, felons of themselves: their chattels, like those of other felons, were forfeited to the crown and placed at the disposal of the king’s almoner or the holder of a royal patent. Their bodies were denied the usual rites of Christian burial. By ancient custom, based on popular lore, the corpses of suicides were interred at a crossroads or in some other public way, laid face down in the grave with a wooden stake driven through them leading to both penalties for the family – mainly the confiscation of property – and spiritual punishment for the deceased, as they were not allowed to be buried on consecrated ground.

The influence of the devil was thought to be key, part of the reason self-murderers were reviled, but this involved a psychological judgement of the deceased. The devil could only tempt those who had the power of reason:

The state of mind of self-killers at the time that they committed their fatal deed was crucial. Men and women who slew themselves when they were mad or otherwise mentally incompetent were not guilty of their crime. Edmund Wingate explained concisely that suicides had to be sane and to take their lives intentionally to be guilty of self-murder: “He is felo de se that doth destroy himself out of premeditated hatred against his own life, or out of a humour to destroy himself’. Idiots or lunatics who were insane when they killed themselves were judged non compos mentis by the coroner’s jury and spared both the secular and the religious punishments for suicide.

Attitudes softened as time went on, however, and by the time of Kitty’s presumed death, the courts declared that most suicides were due to insanity.

Kitty, it seems, was an exception. She was presumably judged sane, and therefore wicked, and buried at a crossroads. Perhaps the fact that she lacked a family meant the coroner’s jury had little incentive to show her leniency.

Her grave, however, is peaceful. It has always had flowers. Legend has it that Dartmoor pixies place them there, but it was known that author Beatrice Chase took the responsibility for many decades.

I have seen Jay’s Grave many times, as it is a regular resting place for walkers, but in recent years it has been resplendent with floral tributes.

Like the Cross Bones graveyard in London, it has become a point of remembrance for forgotten and abandoned people, in the hope that our collective crimes of convenient amnesia are not repeated.

I visited this morning with my father and, for the first time, we left flowers.

Link to Wikipedia page on Jay’s grave.

Emergency response psychology in Madrid

Madrid is one of the very few places in the world that has emergency response psychologists that attend the scene of accidents and disasters alongside the police, paramedics and fire crews. I recently interviewed Teresa Pacheco, one of the founders and current members of the Madrid team, about her work for the latest issue of The Psychologist.

Could you tell us a little about the psychology emergency response team in Madrid?

The SAMUR-Protección Civil emergency services are part of the Madrid municipal government, and at first the service was just focused on physical health. However, in 1999 we saw the need for specialist attention in dealing with complex psychological situations, and so a team of voluntary psychologists was created within SAMUR, principally responsible for passing on bad news to relatives after traffic accidents.

Because of the evolution of emergency psychology and the success of the team, in 2003 the psychology emergency response team was formally created. It consists of six people, on call 24 hours a day, for any psychological emergencies that might occur. To ensure an effective and consistent response we have developed procedures for a range of diverse situations for which a psychologist might be required, including extreme anxiety reactions, overdose, communicating bad news, child abuse, sexual violence, multiple victim accidents and large-scale catastrophes.

I first read about Teresa and her team in a 2008 article for the Spanish daily El País so it was a pleasure to be able to interview her one-to-one.

However, there are also two other freely available articles in the current issue of The Psychologist, both of which are excellent.

The first is an important piece on the psychology of homelessness by Christian Jarrett and the second is on the history of blindsight, a neurological condition where affected patients have no conscious experience of vision despite being able to direct automatic behaviours based on visual information.

Link to interview with photos and layout.
Link to interview in plain web format.
Link to article on the psychology of homelessness.
Link to article on the history of blindsight.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist and my psychological emergencies usually involve losing the remote control.

Brizendine, true to stereotype

Louann Brizendine is a neuropsychiatrist who seems intent on bolstering sex stereotypes with poor science. Presumably in the service of promoting a new book, she has an article on CNN which attempts to explain ‘why men obsess over sex’ but which has lots of odd errors and strange unsubstantiated claims.

The thing that immediately struck me was in the initial paragraphs:

Our brains are mostly alike. We are the same species, after all. But the differences can sometimes make it seem like we are worlds apart.

The “defend your turf” area — dorsal premammillary nucleus — is larger in the male brain and contains special circuits to detect territorial challenges by other males. And his amygdala, the alarm system for threats, fear and danger is also larger in men. These brain differences make men more alert than women to potential turf threats.

Male and female humans are indeed the same species, but we are not a species which has a dorsal premammillary nucleus because it’s only been identified in the rat.

Furthermore, there is no reliable evidence that amygdala size differs between the sexes in humans and a recent study that looked specifically at this issue found no difference.

The rest of the article is full of Brizendine’s usual style which is to take a common stereotype of male or female behaviour and then to ‘explain’ it with a overly-simple, one dimensional and usually not directly tested brain explanation.

For example:

All that testosterone drives the “Man Trance”– that glazed-eye look a man gets when he sees breasts. As a woman who was among the ranks of the early feminists, I wish I could say that men can stop themselves from entering this trance. But the truth is, they can’t. Their visual brain circuits are always on the lookout for fertile mates. Whether or not they intend to pursue a visual enticement, they have to check out the goods.

Got that? Testosterone is responsible for men looking at breasts, perhaps even falling into an irresistible tit-driven trance, and we can’t help it. Are there any scientific studies on whether hooter staring is related to testosterone levels? (Sadly) No.

And there’s plenty more unlikely claims along similar lines. Apparently oxytocin is responsible for ‘nice’ grandpas whereas ‘grumpy’ grandpas can be explained by a drop in testosterone in later life.

Please make it stop.

UPDATE: Thanks to @willoller and Bergen who pointed out that the dorsal premammilliary nuclei have been identified in humans. Interestingly, however, I can only find one study which has ever investigated it in humans and nothing which suggests it is a “defend your turf” area. This conclusion seems entirely drawn from rat studies (e.g. this one) and what Brizendine seems to be doing, in this and other recent articles, is taking findings from rat studies and talking as if they were directly relevant to humans which is dubious to say the least.

Link to awful ‘Why men obsess over sex’ article (via @sarcastic_f)

Doing it for the country

This study should cause all sorts of public policy head scratching and hair pulling but will undoubtedly be ignored. It suggests that motherhood, not marriage, reduces the chances of disadvantaged young women getting involved in drug use and delinquency.

A special award to the first politician to argue that young women should be getting up the duff rather than married for the benefit of society, and full marks to the first one that realises that such complex social problems can’t be solved by simple solutions whether that be marriage, pregnancy or whatever else is flavour of the month (Americans: ‘up the duff’ is British slang for ‘blessed with child’).

Motherhood and criminal desistance in disadvantaged neighborhoods

Criminology, Volume 48 Issue 1, Pages 221 – 258

Derek A. Kreager, Ross L. Matsueda, Elena A. Erosheva

Evidence from several qualitative studies has suggested that the transition to motherhood has strong inhibitory effects on the delinquency and drug use trajectories of poor women. Quantitative studies, however, typically have failed to find significant parenthood or motherhood effects. We argue that the latter research typically has not examined motherhood in disadvantaged settings or applied the appropriate statistical method. Focusing on within-individual change, we test the motherhood hypothesis using data from a 10-year longitudinal study of more than 500 women living in disadvantaged Denver communities. We find that the transition to motherhood is associated significantly with reductions in delinquency, marijuana, and alcohol behaviors. Moreover, we find that the effect of motherhood is larger than that of marriage for all outcomes. These results support the qualitative findings and suggest that the transition to motherhood—and not marriage—is the primary turning point for disadvantaged women to exit delinquent and drug-using trajectories.

Link to summary and DOI entry for study.

The ‘pseudocommando’ mass murderer

Murder sprees by grudge-bearing, gun-toting killers have become a tragic feature of modern society although owing to the thankfully rare occurrence of the incidents, little is known about the sort of person who decides to embark upon this sort of deadly rampage. An article just published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law reviews what we know about such people.

It must be said that the article spends a lot of time on the rather interpretive ‘psychodynamics’ of mass shooter personality and less on more systematic evidence, but largely, it seems, because there is very little of the latter.

However, it’s also worth saying that forensic psychology and psychiatry in the US has traditionally been, and remains, much more heavily influenced by Freudian theories than in Europe and so these sorts of analyses are not quite so unusual as they might seem.

The two introductory paragraphs to the paper note the main points and dispel some myths with regard to mass shooters (please note, I’ve removed the numerical references for ease of reading).

The term pseudocommando was used by Dietz in 1986 to describe a type of mass murderer who plans his actions “after long deliberation”. The pseudocommando often kills indiscriminately in public during the daytime, but may also kill family members and a “pseudo-community” he believes has mistreated him. He comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons and has no escape planned. He appears to be driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, in addition to having a paranoid character. Such persons are “collectors of injustice” who nurture their wounded narcissism and retreat into a fantasy life of violence and revenge. Mullen described the results of his detailed personal evaluations of five pseudocommando mass murderers who were caught before they could kill themselves or be killed. He noted that the massacres were often well planned (i.e., the offender did not “snap”), with the offenders arriving at the crime scene heavily armed, often in camouflage or warrior gear, and that they appeared to be pursuing a highly personal agenda of payback to an uncaring, rejecting world. Both Mullen and Dietz have described this type of offender as a suspicious grudge holder who is preoccupied with firearms.

Mass killings by such individuals are not new, nor did they begin in the 1960s with Charles Whitman. The news media tend to suggest that the era of mass public killings was ushered in by Whitman atop the tower at the University of Texas at Austin and have become “a part of American life in recent decades.” Research indicates that the news media have heavily influenced the public perception of mass murder, particularly the erroneous assertion that its incidence is increasing. Furthermore, it is typically the high-profile cases that represent the most widely publicized, yet least representative mass killings. As an example that such mass murderers have existed long before Whitman, consider a notorious case, the Bath School disaster of 1927, now long forgotten by most. Andrew Kehoe lived in Michigan in the late 1920s. He struggled with serious financial problems, and his wife suffered from tuberculosis. He appeared to focus his unhappiness and resentment on a local town conflict having to do with a property tax being levied on a school building. After becoming utterly overwhelmed with resentment and hatred, Kehoe killed his wife, set his farm ablaze, and killed some 45 individuals by setting off a bomb in the school building. Kehoe himself was killed in the blast, but he left a final communication on a wooden sign outside his property that read: “Criminals are made, not born”‚Äîa statement suggestive of externalization of blame and long-held grievance.

Link to PubMed entry for ‘pseudocommando’ article.