The secret life of the inner voice

Don’t miss the latest RadioLab short, a programme about a guy whose world has been unevenly slowed down.

Psychological fascinating but also a beautiful piece of storytelling.

When Andy first met Kohn, he saw a college freshman in a wheelchair who moved slow and talked slow. But it only took one conversation for Andy to realize that Kohn was also witty and observant. They clicked so effortlessly over lunch one day that Andy went ahead and asked an audacious question: why was Kohn so slow? Kohn told him that when he was 8-years-old, he was hit by a car. He was in a coma for five months, and when he finally woke up, he everything about him was slowed down … except for his mind.

Do not miss.

Link to RadioLab short ‘Slow’.

The hot hand smacks back

The idea of the ‘hot hand’, where a player who makes several successful shots has a higher chance of making some more, is popular with sports fans and team coaches, but has long been considered a classic example of a cognitive fallacy – an illusion of a ‘streak’ caused by our misinterpretation of naturally varying scoring patterns.

But a new study has hard data to show the hot hand really exists and may turn one of the most widely cited ‘cognitive illusions’ on its head.

A famous 1985 study by psychologist Thomas Gilovich and his colleagues looked at the ‘hot hand’ belief in basketball, finding that there was no evidence of any ‘scoring streak’ in thousands of basketball games beyond what you would expect from natural variation in play.

Think of it like tossing a weighted coin. Although the weighting, equivalent to the players skill, makes landing a ‘head’ more likely overall, every toss of the coin is independent. The last result doesn’t effect the next one.

Despite this, sometimes heads or tails will bunch together and this is what people erroneously interpret as the ‘hot hand’ or being on a roll, at least according to the theory. Due to the basketball research, that seemed to show the same effect, the ‘hot hand fallacy’ was born and the idea of ‘scoring streaks’ thought to be sports myth.

Some have suggested that while the ‘hot hand’ may be an illusion, in practical terms, in might be useful on the field.

Better players are more likely to have a higher overall scoring rate and so are more likely to have what seem like streaks. Passing to that guy works out, because the better players have the ball for longer.

But a new study led by Markus Raab suggests that the hot hand does indeed exist. Each shot is not independent and players that hit the mark may raise their chances of scoring the next time. They seem to draw inspiration from their successes.

Crucially, the researchers chose their sport carefully because one of the difficulties with basketball – from a numbers point of view – is that players on the opposing team react to success.

If someone scores, they may find themselves the subject of more defensive attention on the court, damping down any ‘hot hand’ effect if it did exist.

Because of this, the new study looked at volleyball where the players are separated by a net and play from different sides of the court. Additionally, players rotate position after every rally, meaning its more difficult to ‘clamp down’ on players from the opposing team if they seem to be doing well.

The research first established the belief in the ‘hot hand’ was common in volleyball players, coaches and fans, and then looked to see if scoring patterns support it – to see if scoring a point made a player more likely to score another.

It turns out that over half the players in Germany’s first-division volleyball league show the ‘hot hand’ effect – streaks of inspiration were common and points were not scored in an independent ‘coin toss’ manner.

What’s more, players were sensitive to who was on a roll and used the effect to the team’s advantage – more commonly passing to those on a scoring streak.

So it seems the ‘hot hand’ effect exists. But this opens up another, perhaps more interesting, question.

How does it work? Because if teams can understand the essence of on court inspiration, they’ve got a recipe for success.

Link to blocked study. Clearing a losing strategy.
Link to full text which has mysteriously appeared online.

The personality of sperm donors

The biggest ever study on the personality of sperm donors has just been published.

Each was asked to fill out the Temperament and Character Inventory personality scale, also known as the TCI, and the results were compared to a similar group of men who hadn’t whacked off into a plastic tube for the benefit of society.

So who donates sperm?

With regard to personality, we found significant differences on the temperament dimension of harm avoidance between the sperm donors and the comparison group, with lower means for sperm donors. This indicates that the sperm donors described themselves as being less worried, uncertain, shy and less subject to fatigue

Furthermore, we also found significant differences on the character dimensions, where the sperm donors showed higher means on self-directedness. This indicates that they perceived themselves as more autonomous individuals, with a capacity for responsibility, as behaving in a more goal-directed manner, and to be more resourceful and self-acceptant than the comparison group.

The sperm donors also showed significantly higher means on cooperativeness. This means that they described themselves as being more integrated with society and having a greater capacity for identification with and acceptance of other people than the comparison group.

The personality dimensions from the Temperament and Character Inventory have been found to be among the most heavily influenced by genetics, so knowing that your average sperm donor is a generally nice chap is very useful information.

I suspect, however, that ‘not easily fatigued’ may be a selection bias due to the demands of the job.

Link to paywalled study. No chance of a donation then?

The psychiatry of vegetarianism

A fascinating but unfortunately locked review article on the psychology of vegetarianism has this paragraph on how avoiding the pleasures of cooked flesh has been seen as a mental illness in times past.

How vegetarians are seen has shifted radically over time. During the Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church declared vegetarians to be heretics, and a similar line of persecutions occurred in 12th century China (Kellman, 2000). In the earlier half of the twentieth century, the sentiment toward vegetarians remained distinctly negative, with the decision not to eat meat being framed as deviant and worthy of suspicion.

Major Hyman S. Barahal (1946), then head of the Psychiatry Section of Mason General Hospital, Brentwood, wrote openly that he considered vegetarians to be domineering and secretly sadistic, and that they “display little regard for the suffering of their fellow human beings” (p. 12). In this same era, it was proposed that vegetarianism was an underlying cause of stammering, the cure for which was a steady diet of beefsteak.

In contrast, research shows the general attitude to vegetarianism has generally shifted to be, shall we say, somewhat more positive.

Link to locked article. Forbidden fruit and all that.

A review of Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

I’ve written an in-depth review of Steven Pinker’s new book on the decline of violence for the latest Wilson Quarterly

I thought getting a free copy and working on a review would be great fun but was rather taken aback when the 848 page book landed on my doorstep. I shouldn’t have been because there isn’t a wasted page.

I go into the details of some of Pinker’s key arguments in the book, which you can read in more detail in the review, but as you can see from this part, the book is definitely worth reading.

Despite my concerns about how Pinker portrays individual psychology and neuroscience, The Better Angels of Our Nature is so comprehensive that these faults represent only a fraction of the book. Taken as a whole, it is powerful, mind changing, and important. Pinker does not shy away from the gritty detail and is not to be taken lightly—quite literally in fact, as at more than 800 pages his book could easily be used as a weapon if you remained unpersuaded by its arguments. But this avalanche of information serves to demonstrate convincingly and counterintuitively that violence is on the decline.

In many ways, violence is a disease of the emotions. While we should never ignore the victims, it can be managed and curbed so it affects as few people as possible and remains minimally contagious. Many illnesses that once felled multitudes are now largely vanquished through greater knowledge and simple preventive measures; a similar process has made us all less likely to be targets, and perpetrators, of brutality. As Pinker argues, this is an achievement we should take pride in.

You can read the full text of the review by clicking on the link below. Thanks to The Wilson Quarterly for making it available online.

Link to review of Pinker’s new book in The Wilson Quarterly.

Glitches in The Technology of Orgasm

We’ve covered The Technology of Orgasm before, a hugely influential book arguing that 19th century doctors were using Victorian vibrators to cure ‘female hysteria’ through the induction of [serious look] ‘hysterical paroxysms’, but it seems that the main argument may not be as breathtaking as it first appears.

Cory Silverberg discusses how historians of sex have been less than impressed with the idea and the issue has now become a hot topic because the book, written by author Rachel Maines, has been made into a film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The Technology of Orgasm is a somewhat controversial book. Controversial in that the thesis of the book has been almost universally accepted and embraced by the mainstream press and the sex toy industry, while at the same time being quite seriously critiqued by historians of sexuality. In her book Maines contends that the vibrator was regularly used by doctors to treat “hysteria” which they had previously been treating by manually stimulating women to orgasm. Included in this argument is the idea that the women didn’t know they were having orgasms and the doctors didn’t seem to worry about the professional boundaries involved in essentially masturbating their patients.

Silverberg also notes a comprehensive page by historian Lesley Hall who has detailed difficulties with the ‘Victorian vibrator cure’ idea.

The page also has loads of other fascinating information about 19th century sex.

Don’t be put off by the page’s dreadful green background – as the title suggests, it is full of wonderful ‘Victorian sex factoids’, including why it is unlikely that Queen Victoria ever used cannabis to help alleviate period pains.

Link to Cory Silverberg’s coverage of the new film (via @DrPetra).
Link to Lesley Hall’s page on ‘Victorian Sex Factoids’.

A case of simulated fragmentation

The New York Times has an excerpt of a book that claims to expose one of the most famous psychiatric cases in popular culture as a fraud.

Based on an analysis of previously locked archives the book suggests that the patient at the centre of the ‘Sybil’ case of ‘multiple personality disorder’ was, in fact, faking and admitted so to her psychiatrist.

The diagnosis, now named dissociative identity disorder, is controversial because the idea that someone can genuinely have several ‘personalities’ inside a single body has not been well verified and diagnoses seemed to boom after the concept became well-known.

This particular case became well known because it was written up as a best-selling 1973 book and was later turned into successful film of the same name.

The book and the film are though to have been key in the shaping the concept of the diagnosis and making it popular during the late 70s and 80s.

However, detective work by author Debbie Nathan has seemed to uncover medical notes that suggest the psychiatrist at the centre of the case, Cornelia Wilbur, may have known that his patient had admitted to faking for some time.

One may afternoon in 1958, Mason walked into Wilbur’s office carrying a typed letter that ran to four pages. It began with Mason admitting that she was “none of the things I have pretended to be.

“I am not going to tell you there isn’t anything wrong,” the letter continued. “But it is not what I have led you to believe. . . . I do not have any multiple personalities. . . . I do not even have a ‘double.’ . . . I am all of them. I have been essentially lying.”

Before coming to New York, she wrote, she never pretended to have multiple personalities. As for her tales about “fugue” trips to Philadelphia, they were lies, too. Mason knew she had a problem. She “very, very, very much” wanted Wilbur’s help. To identify her real trouble and deal with it honestly, Mason wrote, she and Wilbur needed to stop demonizing her mother. It was true that she had been anxious and overly protective. But the “extreme things” — the rapes with the flashlights and bottles — were as fictional as the soap operas that she and her mother listened to on the radio. Her descriptions of gothic tortures “just sort of rolled out from somewhere, and once I had started and found you were interested, I continued. . . . Under pentothal,” Mason added, “I am much more original.”


Link to excerpt of book in the New York Times.