Airport psych security: snake oil on a plane?

Nature has an extensive article on the ‘deception detection training’ that’s been widely rolled out for airport security staff and anti-terrorism police despite that fact that is has barely been publicly tested.

As we reported in 2007, a great deal of this training seems to be based on psychologist Paul Ekman’s various methods for focusing on facial expressions as a way of improving the ability to detect lies.

However, there is no convincing evidence that has been published in peer-reviewed journals to suggest it can actually improve the ability to pick up deception.

The actual technique, at least as used by the United States, is called Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques or SPOT, and was apparently created ‘in consultation’ with Ekman.

The Nature piece also discusses another technology Future Attribute Screening Technology or FAST, which essentially just looks to see if someone is stressed, with the idea that it can pick out potential terrorists, again with no public data available on its effectiveness.

Now, it could be that there are a great deal of classified test results that show how accurate these systems are, but if not, I suspect that physiological threat detection has barely moved on for 50 years and entirely relies on whether someone ‘looks shifty’ and is demonstrably stressed, probably back up with a bit of statistical modelling to sort through passenger characteristics.

However, the Nature article does a fantastic job of questioning the basis of the current technologies and asking to what extent they are high-tech snake oil.

Link to Nature ‘Airport security: Intent to deceive?’.

Welcome to PsyOps Air

Wired’s Danger Room blog took a trip on Commando Solo, the US Air Force plane that’s been specially modified for the Psychological Operations or PsyOps division to create instant radio and television stations to broadcast persuasive messages to the people below.

As you might expect, the article doesn’t reveal a huge amount and there’s lots of close angle photos that look like the sort of thing a military aviation perv might take on the subway.

However, it does reveal a little about what it’s like to work in the mobile studio and it does mention the difficulty with measuring impact of their work – a constant point of contention with PsyOps work.

Measuring the effectiveness of a bomber or a strike fighter is fairly straightforward: The art of bomb damage assessment, measuring the size of a bomb crater or effective blast radius of airdropped weapons. What about when your weapon is a television or radio signal, and your goal is the somewhat more nebulous aim of “influencing” a target?

“The biggest challenge is measuring our effectiveness,” said Rice. “We don’t have a way to look at it — we don’t have BDA.

Link to Danger Room ‘Inside the Air Force‚Äôs Secret PsyOps Plane’.

Three Christs

In the 1950s, three delusional Messiahs were gathered to live together in the same mental hospital. This is one of the most remarkable experiments in the history of psychology and I’ve written about it in an article for Slate.

I’ve had this tale told to me many times, but in a hazy way almost like a myth. I’ve been asked it as a question (“what would happen if three delusional Christs met each other?”) other times it appears as a trite abbreviate anecdote (“did you hear about the three delusional Christs? One decided he was the Father, the other the Son and the other the Holy Ghost!”).

It was, however, a genuine experiment, carried out by psychologist Milton Rokeach in the 1950s, and written up in the sadly out-of-print book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

As Rokeach realised years later, the whole setup was entirely unethical and thankfully we have moved beyond manipulating patients’ lives for academic curiosity, but it remains a fascinating chapter in psychiatric history and I tried to capture the essence of it in the Slate piece.

These tales are surprising because delusions, in the medical sense, are not simply a case of being mistaken. They are considered to be pathological beliefs, reflecting a warped or broken understanding that is not, by definition, amenable to being reshaped by reality. One of most striking examples is the Cotard delusion, under which a patient believes she is dead; surely there can be no clearer demonstration that simple and constant contradiction offers no lasting remedy. Rokeach, aware of this, did not expect a miraculous cure. Instead, he was drawing a parallel between the baseless nature of delusion and the flimsy foundations we use to construct our own identities. If tomorrow everyone treats me as if I have an electronic device in my head, there are ways and means I could use to demonstrate they are wrong and establish the facts of the matter‚Äîa visit to the hospital perhaps. But what if everyone treats me as if my core self were fundamentally different than I believed it to be? Let’s say they thought I was an undercover agent‚Äîwhat could I show them to prove otherwise? From my perspective, the best evidence is the strength of my conviction. My belief is my identity.

Link to Slate article ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’.

Singing in the rain

Photo by Flickr user Amelia-Jane. Click for sourceThere’s a common belief that the weather affects our mood, that we tend to become more depressed in the winter and that summer brings an emotional lift. This has been researched before in small studies that have found inconsistent results but a new study published in Psychiatry Research tested the idea on almost 14,500 people and found no link to weather, while the seasonal effects did not follow the common belief: depression was more common in summer and autumn.

The researchers, led by Dutch psychologist Marcus Huibers, tested both the effect of daily changes in weather and the influence of the season. They sent out thousands of invitations to to people in Holland to complete a standard depression diagnosis questionnaire on the internet, in waves of a few thousand every week, over 18 months.

This allowed the researchers to check the exact day’s weather against people’s mood states.

Neither that day’s temperature, the amount of sunshine or rainfall had any immediate effect on mood, and the seasonal changes were not what you’d expect from ‘common knowledge’: men had seasonal peaks of major depression and sad mood in the summer, while women had seasonal peaks in the autumn.

Although there are some people who do seem to have depression triggered when winter arrives (a condition diagnosed as ‘seasonal affective disorder’ or SAD) this link doesn’t seem to exist in the public as a whole.

I currently live in Medell√≠n, a city without seasons, to the point where it is nicknamed as ‘the city of eternal spring’. The locals says it used to be possible to tell the difference between the rainy seasons and dry seasons but over the last few years it’s simply been impossible to make any distinctions.

Interestingly, this has an effect on how we assess people for dementia. One of the ‘orientation’ questions for the widely used ‘Mini-mental state examination’ or MMSE evaluation is ‘what season is it?’.

As no-one knows what season it is, the assessment has to be scored out of 29 rather than 30, or it has to be replaced with something ad-hoc like ‘what part of the day is it?’.

However, it would be also interesting to find out whether depression varies here by time of year to understand whether this effect is really to do with season, or perhaps to do with the significance of the date.

For example, self-harm and suicide has been found to vary more by significant public holidays than by time of year.

Link to PubMed entry for depression, weather and season study.

The Inca DSM

A 1999 article about ‘Mental disorder among the Incas in ancient Peru’ in the History of Psychiatry journal has a listing of mental illness recognised by the Inca empire.

The name on the left is in Ancient Quechua, the language of the Incas, and the translation is on the right.

Chayapu oncuy – Frenzy, madness
Chayapuy – Frenzy, madness
Chayapuyniyoc – Frenetic
Chayapuyok urek – Lunatic
Cupaypa yaucusccan – Possessed by the devil
Haucha utek – Furious fool
Llakiy – Addiction, sadness, anxiety
Manchay Ilakllay – Fear
Manchay utek – Furious fool
Muzpaycachak – Fool madman
Poqques – Innocent fool who knows nothing
Pputirayay huaccanayay vnccoy – Melancholy
Putirayay – Melancholy
Putiy – Sadness
Soncconnak – Fool without common sense
Utek chanak – Madman
Utek chanaynin – Insanity
Utek cay – Insanity
Utek – Fool or madman without common sense

Interestingly, the translation is only approximate, not because the original terms were necessarily hard to understand but because we no longer know the meaning of the Spanish words which they were translated into.

Apparently, the the conquistadores had their own vocabulary for mental disorder which has now been lost to time.

However, it seems the Ancient Incas not only had a complex classification system but they also had a wide range of psychoactive plants which they used to try and treat mental problems.

Clearly there are some conditions mentioned that we wouldn’t recognise today but as soon as someone on the DSM committee gets hold of the article you can assured they’ll be proposed for the next edition. Probably alongside an academic article telling us that the condition is poorly recognised and woefully under-diagnosed.

I discovered the article via the excellent Spanish-language psychiatry blog Desde El Manicomio which also comes highly recommended.

Link to PubMed entry for Inca article.
Link to Desde El Manicomio.

From subliminal ads to Joanna the Mad

The Providentia psychology blog has been a consistently good read for as long as I can remember and if you’ve never checked it out a host of great articles have been posted online recently.

Just in May along there have been pieces on how a barking woman was declared unfit for trial, how the panic about ‘subliminal advertising’ started in the ’50s, why adolescents drink and whether the Spanish monarch Joanna the Mad was really mad.

It’s written by Toronto-based psychologist Romeo Vitelli and is well worth a visit.

Link to the Providentia blog.

Time compression and the causal connection

Photo by Flickr user evoo73. Click for sourceWhen we think two events are causally related we perceive the time between them to be shorter. Although this is news to me, it turns out the ‘time compression’ effect has been well researched.

Several of the studies have found that when we view two events but believe the first causes the second, time between them seems have gone quicker than when we perceive exactly the same scenario but think the two events are not connected.

This is a summary of the effect from a recent study that investigated whether your beliefs about how one thing is causing another affected the amount of time compression:

How much time might have elapsed between the launch of an economic program and the emergence of an economy from recession, between joining a dating service and finding someone you want to marry, or between giving your child a tough lecture about trying harder in school and seeing an effect on his or her performance? Recent research has shown that people subjectively bind such cause‚Äìeffect events in time and ‚Äúcompress‚Äù the time elapsed between them. Hence, for instance, if a parent believes that the tough lecture was the reason for an improvement in the child’s performance, the parent would estimate the interval [between the two] to be shorter. Several behavioral studies have established that people judge the time elapsed between pairs of historical events to be shorter when they perceive the events to be causally linked than when people do not perceive them to be so (Faro, Leclerc, & Hastie, 2005).

Similar effects occur on a shorter time scale. For example, in another study, when participants intentionally made a movement that appeared to cause a sound, they thought the events were closer together than when the two events occurred with no apparent causal connection

The new study helped explain the effect and showed that our beliefs about how we think one thing caused another are crucial to our experience of time.

It found that if people believe that cause and effect happened by a mechanical or physical process that was time limited the ‘time compression’ effect increased, whereas if it was an accumulative or ‘building up to a tipping point’ process, time didn’t seem so short.

Link to PubMed entry for time compression study.