The power of loss

The Frontal Cortex blog has a fantastic piece on ‘loss aversion’ – the cognitive bias where try to we avoid losses more than we try to obtain gains – and its origin in the Allais Paradox.

The crucial thing about loss aversion is it is not about just losing things – it’s also about the perception that we might be losing something, regardless of the actual impact on our resources.

For example, people tend to be less keen to undergo surgery when it is described as having a 20% death rate than when described as having a 80% survival rate, even though both mean exactly the same thing.

The post over at the Frontal Cortex does a great job of weaving together the psychology of the effect, the story of how it was discovered, and it’s impact on our lives, in an excellent brief article.

Link to Frontal Cortex on the the Allais Paradox and loss aversion.

2010-10-22 Spike activity

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

Scientific American Mind’s Bering in Mind has two unmissable pieces on the psychology of suicide – the first taking a critical look at the idea that suicide might be adaptive in some cases, the second looking at the individual psychology of the suicidal person.

Why shaking someone’s beliefs turns them into stronger advocates. Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a new study on the endlessly fascinating effects of cognitive dissonance.

The Lancet has an excellent open essay on neuroethics and brain science.

Speakers with a foreign accent are perceived as less credible – and not just because of prejudice. The BPS Research Digest reports on some disappointing data to follow last weeks news about reduced libido in foreign countries.

New Scientist has a good series on the science of morality which has some paywalled pieces which, annoyingly, aren’t well marked.

Journalist Carl Zimmer is interviewed about his new neuroscience e-book, Brain Cuttings, and the electronic future of science writing over at Neurotribes.

The New York Times has an interactive feature on how psychology is being applied to school cafeteria design to encourage healthy eating

To the bunkers! Popular Science reports on the first fully automated robot surgery to removed a prostate. Today, a prostate, tomorrow your frontal lobes.

Seed Magazine has a short but through-provoking piece wondering whether vaccine quackery in autism is partly supported by cognitive biases that under-value ‘sins of omission’ in causal explanations.

Light swearing at the start or end of a persuasive speech can help influence an audience according to a new piece from PsyBlog. Welcome, new dawn of evidence-based swearing.

CNN reports on the 20-year-old female criminology student whose just been made police chief in a dangerous Mexican town shortly after the mayor was murdered.

Emos rejoice! Feeling sad makes us more creative, according to research covered by a great Frontal Cortex piece. OK, stop rejoicing, you’ll lose that artistic edge.

Science News covers an intriguing new study finding that we value potential purchases more highly and are more likely to buy if they’re physically present.

A study covered by Barking Up the Wrong Tree reports that you have a 6% chance of shagging someone you meet at a speed-dating event. What’s the standard deviation you ask? Doesn’t say but my guess is spanking.

Wired Danger Room takes a critical look at the US Army’s ‘breakthrough’ blood test for brain injury and notes that there’s more than a little hype in its announcement.

Contrary to the researchers’ expectations people with autism were more susceptible to magic tricks than neurotypical folks. Great write up on the Cracking the Enigma blog.

BBC News has pictures of the Mexican authorities burning 105 tons of marijuana. Think 50 Cent gig without the baseball caps.

There’s an excellent piece on how the concept of risk became central to psychiatry over the Frontier Psychiatrist.

RadioLab has an excellent short podcast on communication patterns embedded in animal calls.

[Honestly dear], receiving a massage increases trust and co-operation in a financial game. Dan Ariely’s excellent Irrationally Yours blog covers an interesting study that also works as a good excuse for executives.

The Economist argues that the Mexican drug war could be curtailed with better police in Mexico, stricter gun laws in America and legal pot in California. Best of luck with that.

Got a solution? Well, have we got a problem to sell you. Pharmalot interviews author of new book ‘Sex, Lies & Pharmaceuticals’ on the invention of female Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder and the new pills that are supposed to treat it.

The British Psychological Society are looking for a freelance blogger to write about occupational and business psychology. Interested?

On the controversy that ripped anthropology asunder – the trashing of Margaret Mead. Great coverage of a new book by Savage Minds.

NPR Science has a piece on a fascinating anthropological study of Japanese teens finding that most electronic messages they send have no ‘news’ – they’re just signalling their social connectedness.

A history of psychology post-doc is blogging her tour of US asylums past and present over at Asylum Notes.

There’s a great interview with broad thinking perceptual psychologist Mark Changizi over at Neuroanthropology.

GQ has a compelling, tragic and enraging feature article on the man shortly to stand trial accused of encouraging suicidal people to kill themselves online by pretending to enter into suicide pacts. Great journalism on a dreadful case.

Sensory blending

The BBC’s science series Horizon just broadcast a fantastic edition on perception, illusions and how the senses combine with each other to the point of allowing us to integrate artificial new senses.

If you’ve got a healthy interest in psychology, the first half of the programme discusses several important but well-known effects like the rubber hand illusion, colour context changes and the McGurk effect, in light of what they reveal about the perceptual system.

Even if you’re familiar with these concepts, its worth watching as they’re so well presented, but its the second half of the programme which really stands out.

It has several brilliant examples of where people have begun to integrate new information into their sensory world: a blind mountain biker who has learnt to echolocate by making clicks with his mouth, helicopter pilots flying purely by spatial information conveyed to them by vibrations, a belt that allows the wearer to feel where magnetic north is at all times, and so on.

Some of the programme is clearly inspired by an excellent book on unusual sensory and perceptual integration that I’m reading at the moment called See What I’m Saying. It’s by psychologist Lawerence Rosenblum whose name you may recognise as we’ve featured some great pieces from his Sensory Superpowers blog before on Mind Hacks.

If you’re in the UK, you can use the BBC’s iPlayer website to watch the programme online, although rumour has it that there’s a working torrent over at the Pirate Bay.

Link to Horizon edition on BBC iPlayer.
Link to index page of programme on the Pirate Bay.

The Narrative Escape

Please excuse me if I interrupt Vaughan’s normal programming to blow my own trumpet: My ebook “The Narrative Escape” was published yesterday by 40k books. ‘The Narrative Escape’ is a long essay about morality, psychology and stories and is availble in Kindle format. From the ebook blurb:

We instinctively tell stories about our experiences, and get lost in stories told by other people. This is an essay about our story-telling minds. It is about the psychological power of stories, and about what the ability to enjoy stories tells us about the fundamental nature of mind.

My argument in ‘The Narrative Escape’ begins by exploring Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience, looking at them as an example of moral decision making – particularly for that minority that choose to disobey in the experiment. A fascinating thing about these experiments is that although they tell us a lot about what makes people obey authority, they leave mysterious that quality that makes people resist tyrannical authority. I then go on to contrast this moral disobedience, with conventional psychological investigations of morality (for example the work of Lawrence Kohlberg). In using descriptions of moral dilemmas to ask people about their moral reasoning this research, I argue, misses something essential about real-world moral choices. This element is the ability to realise that you are acting according to someone else’s version of what is right and wrong, and to step outside of their definition of the situation. This is the “narrative escape” of the title. The essay also talks about dreams, stories and story-telling and other topics which I hope will be of interest to Mind Hacks readers.

The essay is also available in Italian as “La Fuga Narrativa Link for the English edition.
…And coming soon in Portuguese, I’m told!

Mexican waves across the currents of life

The New York Times has an excellent collection of essays by writers from four Mexican cities, each affected by the ongoing drug war.

The pieces give a fleeting but thoughtful impression of how life in each town has been changed by the upsurge in violence.

I was particularly struck by the piece on Sinaloa, the town forever associated with the cartel that shares its name, which reflects on a dark cultural history and the uncomfortable ambivalence it causes in the residents.

The Mexican drug industry was established in the 1940s by a group of Sinaloans and Americans trafficking in heroin. It is part of our culture: we know all the legends, folk songs and movies about the drug world, including its patron saint, Jesús Malverde, a Robin Hood-like bandit who was hanged in 1909.

There are days when we feel deeply ashamed that the trade is at the heart of Sinaloa’s identity, and wish our history were different. Our ancestors were fearless and proud people, and it is their memory that gives us the will to try to control our own fear and the sobs of the widows and mothers who have lost loved ones.

All four pieces quietly but powerfully portray how the currents of everyday life continue to move beneath the surface of the conflict.

Link to NYT collection ‘In Mexico, Scenes From Life in a Drug War’.

Searching for the off switch

The complex interplay between suicidal people in online chat rooms is discussed in an excellent edition of BBC Radio 4’s The Report which you can listen to online or download as a podcast.

Despite the programme being a carefully researched and nuanced exploration of the issues, let me just note that it is sold on a stupid premise, namely “Is the internet encouraging vulnerable people to kill themselves?”

People in passing cars have apparently been known to shout “jump!” to suicidal people on the Golden Gate Bridge but you would never see an article entitled “Is the transport system encouraging vulnerable people to kill themselves?”

Sadly, people’s anxieties about new technology means you can get away with such meaningless generalisation when talking about how people interact online.

Needless to say, I was expecting 30 minutes of badly-researched shock-horror radio but instead found a carefully constructed documentary that takes a comprehensive look at whether suicide chat rooms and online groups that provide self-harm instructions actually increase the risk of ending it all.

The documentary talks to families who have lost loved ones after they participated in online groups, police who have investigated such deaths and a suicide chat-room administrator.

It also covers the case of William Melchert-Dinkel who is accused of encouraging people to take their own lives by pretending to agree to online suicide pacts, and discusses recent studies on how participation in such groups affects suicidal thinking (with preliminary research suggesting a reduction).

The knee-jerk response to such groups is usually for government organisations to suggest they should be ‘banned’ (apparently unaware that this is neither possible nor effective) although the documentary covers some more interesting suggestions – including outreach workers who offer support when an at-risk individual seems to be seeking methods to self-harm.

The one line premise is the only bad thing about this documentary and it’s possibly one of the best discussions you’ll hear about the internet and mental health for a long time. It doesn’t look for, or rely on, easy answers and manages some insightful coverage of a delicate issue.

Link to streamed audio of The Report on suicide chat rooms.
Link to podcast of the same.

The origin of the ‘nervous breakdown’

I often get asked what ‘nervous breakdown’ means, as if it was a technical term defined by psychology.

In fact, it’s really just an everyday term used to describe when someone can’t carry on because of psychological problems, although it turns out to have quite technological origin, as this brief article from the American Journal of Psychiatry describes.

The Cambridge academic German Berrios (personal communication) informed me that “breakdown” is a 19th century construction, initially used to refer to breakages and fractures in machinery and leading to the need for “breakdown gangs” (i.e., teams of navvies whose job involved addressing the mechanical disruptions to the functioning of railways). Metaphorical uses of the term followed, particularly in reference to failure in personal intentions and plans.

Berrios suggested that it was only in the second half of the 19th century that its metaphorical connotations were extended to the brain—and later to the mind. Its initial association was not to depression, anxiety, or psychosis but to symptoms associated with mental and physical exhaustion and relating to 19th century constructs such as “neurasthenia,” “the vapors,” “spinal irritation,” and “nervous prostration.” Because neurasthenia (in Greek meaning “lack of nerve strength”) imputes a physical basis (in the nerves) rather than psychological weakness, it was an intrinsically less stigmatizing phrase than “mental illness,”


Link to AJP piece on the ‘nervous breakdown’.