More a danger to ourselves

Photo by Flickr user juanignaciosl ~ www.notedetengas.es ~. Click for sourceThe latest Wired UK has an interesting piece by behavioural economist Dan Ariely who notes that we are now more likely than ever to be the agents of our own demise – through the poor choices we make.

“One of the most interesting analyses on the ways in which our decisions kill us is by Ralph Keeney (Operation Research, 2008). He puts forth the claim that 44.5 per cent of all premature deaths in the US result from personal decisions — choices such as smoking, not exercising, criminality, drug and alcohol use and unsafe sexual behaviour…

Using the same method to examine causes of death in 1900, Keeney found that only around ten per cent of premature deaths were caused by personal decisions. Compared to the more recent proportion of 44.5 per cent of premature deaths caused by personal decisions, it seems that we have “improved” in making decisions that kill us (meaning that we’ve actually got worse). And no, this is not because we’re now all binge drinking, murderous smokers. It’s largely because potentially fatal illnesses, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia (the most common causes of death in the early 20th century), are far more rare these days, and the temptation and our ability to make erroneous decisions (driving while texting, say) have increased dramatically.

What this means is that instead of relying on external factors to keep us alive and healthy for longer, we can (and must) learn to rely on our decision-making skills in order to reduce the number of stupid and costly mistakes that we make.”

This reflects the fact that clinical and health psychologists are now increasingly working with patients who have ‘physical’ illness rather than ‘mental’ illness.

The field has come to be called ‘behavioural medicine‘ and can include working with people who have conditions like diabetes, heart problems or transplants to help them tackle any cognitive biases, emotional influences or behavioural tendencies that lead to poorer health decisions.

Link to Wired UK piece ‘Do the right thing’.

Full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor for Wired UK.

There’s something about Johnny Foreigner

Photo by Flickr user Robert.Nilsson. Click for sourceA new study just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has found that we are less likely to believe something told to us in a foreign accent because the difficulty of adjusting to the voice unconsciously undermines the speaker’s credibility.

The research was completed by the suspiciously foreign sounding psychologists Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar, both from the University of Chicago, who wanted to separate out the effects of deliberate prejudice about the source from the unconscious effects of ease of understanding.

Their study involved participants listening to potential facts (e.g. “Ants don’t sleep”; “A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can”) which were read out by people with native accents, mild foreign accents or heavy foreign accents, from a variety of countries, after which the listeners were asked to indicate how much they believed the statement.

Importantly, the statements were written out and handed to the readers by a native speaker, so the new information came from a fellow countryman, avoiding any deliberate bias the listeners might have about the source of the information.

The results were clear: statements read out by people with a foreign accent, mild or heavy, were significantly less likely to be believed that those read by a native speaker.

In a second experiment, the researchers informed the participants that the study was investigating the effect of accent on the believability of new information to see if the listeners could eliminate their biases.

It turns out they could for people with a mild foreign accent, but statements read out in a thick foreign were still rated as significantly less true – suggesting that we don’t have full conscious control over our credibility weakening biases.

Although never before demonstrated with accents, this sort of effect is well-known in the psychological literature as the ease of which we can make sense of something is known to be linked to a tendency to view it in a positive light.

The authors discuss the previous studies in this excerpt from the scientific paper (from which I’ve removed the references to make it easier to read and more truthful):

We propose that people believe non-native speakers less, simply because they are harder to understand. In general, the ease of processing stimuli, or “processing fluency,” affects the way stimuli are judged. Stimuli that are easier to process are perceived, among other things, as more familiar, more pleasant, visually clearer, longer and more recent, louder, less risky, and more truthful.

For example, people judge “Woes unite foes” as a more accurate description of the impact of troubles on adversaries than “Woes unite enemies,” because the rhyming of woes and foes increases processing fluency. Similarly, people judge the statement “Osorno is in Chile” as more true when the color of the font makes it easier to read.

As someone living in another country, this would be a significant worry if it wasn’t for the fact that, as anyone has seen my dancing will testify, I usually undermine my own credibility way before I get the chance to open my mouth.

Link to DOI entry and study summary.

Staying cool when stealing cars

Photo by Flickr user sparktography. Click for sourceStaying calm is a car thief’s biggest challenge, according to a study published in the British Journal of Criminology that explored the psychology of looking inconspicuous when driving a stolen vehicle.

Criminologists Michael Cherbonneau and Heith Copes interviewed 54 car thieves from Tennessee and Louisiana about their experience of stealing automobiles, particularly focusing on what strategies they use to maintain an appearance of normality while driving away with a stolen vehicle.

Perhaps the most striking point to come out of the interviews is that dealing with the psychological pressure of the drive is by far the biggest challenge. As one offender noted “that‚Äôs where the adrenalin is, it‚Äôs in the drive. The actual theft is really no big deal.”

Some of these strategies were common sense, for example, not doing too much damage when breaking in or driving recklessly, but others were clearly thought out with ideas of how other people would perceive what a ‘normal’ driver would look like.

This can involve thinking about the sort of driver that would be in the type of car the person wants to steal – and dressing accordingly. Offenders reported that they specifically ‘dressed up’ to match their target car and avoided stereotypically gangsterish clothing, while another reported that instead of changing his appearance to fit the car, he made sure he stole cars to fitted his day-to-day look.

This could even take even involve thinking about the potential prejudices of the police, with one offender reporting that he avoided specific types of car “because if police see a young black person like me in a nice car they will easily pull me over”.

But these more practical measures also needed to be accompanied by the right psychological approach which was seen as the most challenging aspect of stealing cars. ‘Police panic’, even if only internal, is common and offenders not only had to conceal the fact they were spooked but conceal the fact they were trying to hid their stress.

This often involved specific mental strategies to focus on certain aspects of behaviour to dampen the effect of emotions:

Some car thieves often respond to the physiological arousal of police encounters by ‘covering their concern with a tightly held cloak of unconcern’, but to over-perform complacency invites suspicion and magnetizes observers doubt as ‘[t]hose who treat the presence of the police as other than normal are seen as other than normal themselves’. A delicate balance must be struck.

In managing composure, some offenders prefer to focus more on the task at hand than on the interactional pressures of the abrupt threat. ‘When I see police,’ explained one thief, ‘I would just maintain my composure and do everything a driver is supposed to do.’ Attending less to the emotional sensations associated with the encounter and monitoring more controllable behaviours instead allows offenders to maintain composure and exhibit normal reactions. Doing so helps minimize the urge to immediately flee when police are in sight.

Some auto thieves were very confident in their ability to act normally, stating that ‘police are only as smart as you make them’. The ability to maintain composure by removing feelings of inferiority provided offenders with a sense of confidence, which in turn made it easier for offenders to act normally.

The study, published in 2006, counters the idea that such crimes are purely opportunistic that require little skill or ability. Instead, while the technical aspects of stealing a car are relatively trivial, the psychological challenges require significant effort.

Link to DOI and summary of study.

Researchers implant false symptoms

Photo by Flickr user Kerry Cunliffe. Click for sourceAn intriguing study just published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology has found that we can be convinced we reported symptoms of mental illness that we never mentioned and, as a result, we can actually start believing we have the symptom itself.

The faking and exaggerating of psychiatric and neurological symptoms is a big problem in the medical world, not because it is difficult to see when symptoms are inconsistent with the person’s medical history, but because they can also be arise unconsciously without any intent to deceive.

For example, imagine someone experiences a minor car crash but afterwards reports that their legs are paralysed. Of course, they could be outright faking, but they could also be experiencing what is now diagnosed as conversion disorder, where they have no neurological damage that would prevent them moving their legs but where they also have no conscious control over their movements.

It is probably true to say that the condition is not well understood, but it seems that the paralysis occurs through problems in the organisation of activity patterns in the brain, rather than through ‘damaged wiring’.

In terms of the medical diagnosis, however, the distinction can often rely on making a difficult judgement about the person’s intentions and motivations – whether they are deliberately faking, have no control or are somewhere in between.

These issues become even more tricky when the reported symptoms are psychological in nature – e.g. memory loss, emotional disturbance, difficulty concentrating – because it can be even harder to make the distinction between genuine, exaggerated or outright faked symptoms.

This is also a legal problem, because patients making insurance or compensation claims have a financial incentive to report more symptoms.

Psychologists have developed numerous tests and evaluations to assess the genuineness of symptoms and whether someone is putting their full effort into ability tests, but this new study shows that the line between conscious and unconscious exaggeration can be quite blurry.

The research team, led by psychologist Harald Merckelbach, asked two groups of student participants to read a description of a legal case where the defendant had illegally entered a medieval building and accidentally dislodged some stones which had fatally wounded a young girl.

They were then told to imagine they were the defendant and to fill in a medical assessment questionnaire. One group was told to fill it in honestly, and other was told to fake a serious psychological condition in a credible way to minimise their criminal responsibility.

The twist came when, after an hour of doing unrelated puzzles and quizzes, the participants in the dishonest group were told they had been detected as fakers, and were asked to fill in the medical questionnaire again – but this time honestly. Those in the honest group were simply told that sometimes people can change their mind and were asked to complete the assessment again.

The group asked to ‘fake’ the first time around showed much higher levels of symptom exaggeration and faking on the second assessment – even though they were told to complete the questionnaire honestly.

In an interesting parallel to a recent study showing that just wearing counterfeit designer clothes led by higher levels of deception, just having experience of earlier deliberate faking led to unconscious exaggeration later on.

But perhaps the most interesting part came in their second experiment. Participants were asked to complete a checklist of symptoms, to report, honestly, on their mental health.

After handing in the questionnaires, the researchers secretly altered a couple of the participants responses – for example, when the participant answered a question about concentration difficulties with 0 (“not at all”), this score was surreptitiously changed to a 2 (“occasionally”).

One of the research team then went through the questionnaire and asked each participant to explain why they answered the way they did.

During the interview, more than two-thirds of the participants gave justification for why a faked item was true, without realising it had been manipulated, and over half were completely blind to the fact that both items had been changed.

The researchers described how “participants would say that they occasionally or rather often experienced concentration difficulties because they had been drinking a lot of coffee lately or because they were going through a difficult time in life with a lot of exams”.

Afterwards, the participants were given the same questions again and those who had justified the faked responses tended to change their answers – having seemingly come to believe more strongly that they really did experience the symptoms ‘given’ to them by the researchers. The effect was not dramatic, but still a significant shift.

In some ways, the study is an extension of the many studies that have found how easy it is to implant fictitious experiences into the memories of everyday folk. But it also shows that there is no cut and dry line between deliberate faking and unconscious motivation and that we can give exaggerated answers even when we’re trying to be brutally honest.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

An epidemic of false memories

Photo by Flickr user corey olsen. Click for sourceA gripping edition of This American Life explores the ‘recovered memory movement’ of the 1990s where patients became convinced that they had experienced horrific, sometimes supernatural, abuse as children, led on by credulous therapists who used techniques now know to cause false memories.

The programme is a 2002 exploration of when experts give bad advice. Skip the first 8 minutes – it’s some irrelevant chattering about car mechanics – as it’s the next 35 minutes that matter.

The piece explores the now infamous recovered memory movement which led to therapists convincing patients that they had suffered dreadful, sometimes theatrically ‘satanic’ abuse, at the hand of their families, which they had supposedly ‘repressed’ into their unconscious mind.

Therapists believed they were detecting the unconscious traces of these ‘experiences’ in the dreams and emotional upset of genuine patients and encouraged their clients to elaborate on what was usually nothing but prejudice.

We now know, largely from research sparked from the work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, that we can easily form false memories with this sort of elaboration, leading patients to believe that these experiences genuinely happened, despite having no memories of it prior to therapy.

Of course, we forget things and remember them again later, but we know now that traumatic experiences are the least likely to be forgotten. In fact, there is still no convincing evidence, or indeed, a single well-verified example, of a ‘repressed’ traumatic experience that was later ‘recovered’.

It’s probably worth noting, as the programme does, that the ‘recovered memory movement’ arrived when the full extent of child sexual abuse was just becoming known and when people were realising that victims of sexual abuse where often dismissed or not believed.

Without the evidence we have today on the remarkable malleability of memory, many therapists began to see what they thought were signs of repressed sexual abuse in their patients, even when this was denied, and began to encourage their clients ‘recover’ their memories.

The programme talks to both people who were falsely led to believe they were abused, and therapists who were caught up in the movement and helped patients ‘recover’ their baseless memories.

The piece is neither voyeuristic nor sensational and carefully weaves together the history of the social phenomenon and the personal stories of those affected.

As an aside, the reporter is Alix Spiegel who makes consistently brilliant mind, brain and mental health radio almost all of which is available online on the NPR archives and This American Life the archives.

Link to ‘An Epidemic Created By Doctors’.

Too fine to sign

Photo by Flickr user Gabo Gonzalez G. Click for sourceVery attractive job seekers may face discrimination from prospective employers of the same sex, according to a new study just published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Previous research has shown that attractive people are often rated more highly in areas not related to their physical appearance, such as intelligence or job performance, but may be thought of more poorly in social situations by same-sex peers.

Psychologist Maria Agthe wondered how these two effects combine and ran two experiments to see how people asked to sort through applications for scholarship would be influenced by the attractiveness of the ‘applicants’ photos.

In the first experiment Agthe found that attractive applicants were more likely to be rated as highly suitable by people from the opposite sex. The best looking men gained no advantage if they were rated by a man but the most attractive women were significantly under-rated by female evaluators.

But it was the second experiment that gives the finding an interesting twist. Agthe factored in the attractiveness of the assessors and made the situation more work like – the applicants were to be considered for a job.

It turned out that the attractiveness of the applicant had no impact on the best looking assessors – they were simply unmoved by physical appearance – while the averagely attractive assessors were those most likely to mark down very attractive applicants. This held for both men and women.

Agthe suggests that this may be due to social competition and the fact we’re all implicitly aware of the idea that attractive people tend to get the breaks – so we try and minimise the advantage of people who we’re close enough to, in attractiveness terms, to be a threat.

Link to brief write-up from Paracademia where I found the study.
Link to study DOI and summary.

2010-07-16 Spike activity

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

If you thought nothing could top the last ‘digital drugs’ news report, it has been surpassed. Experts consulted: school IT guy and school nurse – who simulates the sound of digital drugs with her voice. Thanks Mind Hacks reader alex!

The New York Times asks ‘When did we first rock the mic?’ in an article on the historical lexicography of hip-hop.

A new study covered by the excellent Addiction Inbox finds that drug prohibition likely contributes to higher violence and homicide rates. Pushing universally used substances into the hands of criminals leads to violence? Shocker.

The Onion on satirical top form: ‘Nation’s Music Snobs Protest Predictable Use Of Metallica, Pantera To Torture Prisoners’. The fact that the US Military missed the irony of torturing people to ‘Vulgar Display of Power’ is of small comfort.

Jesse Bering looks at stray dog psychology in his endlessly fascinating column for Scientific American Mind.

The New York Times had an interesting piece on when good parents have difficult kids. Don’t miss the smart commentary on the piece over at Neuron Culture that disentangles the article’s oversimplifications.

Can the personality of your first child put you off having another? asks the excellent new Evidence Based Mummy blog.

The Chronicle of Higher Education covers some fascinating anthropological work on ‘frequent flyer’ drug trial volunteers. Anarchists and “transient, economically struggling people”.

A fantastic counter-intuitive study, brilliantly covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science. Sales and donations massively increase when customers told they can pay whatever they want for a photo and half goes to charity.

NPR has a short but interesting segment on a man who can’t recognise people by their voices. Technically called phonagnosia but given the not-quite-right nickname of ‘voice blindness’.

The mighty Language Log has a sideways look at thought-bubbles, comics and theory of mind.

Wired Science covers a new study finding that happiness and sadness spread through social networks like disease. Another analysis of the Framington Heart Study, which also seems to be quite contagious.

There’s an excellent discussion of how and when talking to ourselves helps us solve problems over at Frontal Cortex. Good job man. Thank you sir!

New Scientist briefly covers a study finding that a single dose of anti-depressants leads to less crying.

There’s a fantastic neuromarketing short story by Cory Doctorow over at Subterranean Press. Really is very good.

The New York Times catches up with the news on K2 Spice, JWH-018 and synthetic marijuana. See also some great background from Terra Sigilata

The neuroscience bloggers’ neuroscience blog Developing Intelligence has sprung back into life and among many other great pieces has a post on ‘Four Things to Keep in Mind When Reading fMRI Studies’.

New Scientist asks can you teach yourself synaesthesia?

Brain training – maybe a little effective? The Nature blog discusses a new study that suggests small but generalisable benefits from brain training.

Wired Science has a piece on how ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or, to sound less of an arse, how the development of a child’s brain reflects the evolution of the human brain.

A study on distraction covered by the BPS Research Digest finds that people talking on their mobiles phones are more likely to miss a unicycling clown. Ironic, because when unicycling to the circus I often miss calls on my mobile phone.

NPR has an engaging interview with psychiatrist Daniel Carlat about his new book on the unhealthy relationship between Big Pharma, doctors and mental illness.

Futurist David Gelernter discusses dream-logic, the internet and the future of artificial intelligence over at Edge.

Cerebrum, the excellent online neuroscience magazine from The Dana Foundation, has an in-depth piece arguing that neuroenhancers should be available but regulated.

The consistently excellent forensic psychology blog In The News discusses myths about sex offender treatment and psychology versus what the evidence actually tells us. See also this week’s BBC Radio 4 All In the Mind on an innovative treatment programme.

The New York Times discusses moves to expand the diagnostic criteria for Alzheimer’s disease.

There’s fantastic coverage of a new, well-controlled study finding that rich families have higher rates of autism than poor families, contrary to the pattern we normally see in the prevalence of disorder, over at Neuroskeptic.