BBC Future column: Personal superstitions

I’m writing a fortnightly column for BBC Future, about everyday brain quirks (as I’ve mentioned previously). My marvellous editor has told me I can repost the columns here, with a three day delay. There’s a bit of a backlog, including Why can smells unlock memories?, Why you’re bad at names and good at faces, and Why we need to sleep?, but you’ll have to visit the site for them. The column from a month ago was on personal superstitions. And without further ado, here it is:

Legendary Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff used to slap his goalkeeper in the stomach before each match. Tennis ace Serena Williams always bounces her ball five times before her first serve. Jennifer Aniston, it is reported, touches the outside of any plane she flies in with her right foot before boarding.

From touching wood for good luck, to walking around ladders to avoid bad luck, we all have little routines or superstitions, which make little sense when you stop to think about them. And they are not always done to bring us luck. I wait until just after the kettle has boiled to pour the water for a cup of tea, rather than pouring just before it boils. I do not know why I feel the need to do this, I am sure it cannot make a difference to the drink.

So, why do I and others repeat these curious habits? Behind the seemingly irrational acts of kettle boiling, ball bouncing or stomach slapping lies something that tells us about what makes animals succeed in their continuing evolutionary struggles.

Repeat behaviour

We refer to something that we do without thinking as being a habit. This is precisely why habits are useful – they do not take up mental effort. Our brains have mechanisms for acquiring new routines, and part of what makes us, and other creatures successful is the ability to create these habits.

Even pigeons can develop superstitious habits, as psychologist B. F. Skinner famously showed in an experiment. Skinner would begin a lecture by placing a pigeon in a cage with an automatic feeder that delivered a food pellet every 15 seconds. At the start of the lecture Skinner would let the audience observe the ordinary, passive behaviour of the pigeon, before covering the box. After fifty minutes he would uncover the box and show that different pigeons developed different behaviours. One bird would be turning counter clockwise three times before looking in the food basket, another would be thrusting its head into the top left corner. In other words, all pigeons struck upon some particular ritual that they would do over and over again.

Skinner’s explanation for this strange behaviour is as straightforward as it is ingenious. Although we know the food is delivered regardless of the pigeon’s behaviour, the pigeon doesn’t know this. So imagine yourself in the position of the pigeon; your brain knows very little about the world of men, or cages, or automatic food dispensers. You strut around your cage for a while, you decide to turn counter clockwise three times, and right at that moment some food appears. What should you do to make that happen again? The obvious answer is that you should repeat what you have just been doing. You repeat that action and – lo! – it works, food arrives.

From this seed, argued Skinner, superstition develops. Superstitions take over behaviour because our brains try and repeat whatever actions precede success, even if we cannot see how they have had their influence. Faced with the choice of figuring out how the world works and calculating the best outcome (which is the sensible rational thing to do), or repeating whatever you did last time before something good happened, we are far more likely to choose the latter. Or to put it another way: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, regardless of the cause.

Habit forming

University of Cambridge psychologist Tony Dickinson has taken the investigation of habits one step further. Dickinson trains rats to press a lever for food and perform another action (usually pulling a chain) for water. The animals can now decide which reward they would like most. If you give them water before the experiment they press the lever for food, if you give them food beforehand they pull the chain for water.

But something strange happens if the animals keep practising these actions beyond the point at which they have effectively learnt them – they seem to “forget” about the specific effects of each action. After this “overtraining”, you feed the animal food before the experiment and they keep on pressing the lever to produce food, regardless of the fact that they have just been fed. The rat has developed a habit, something it does just because it the opportunity is there, without thinking about the outcome.

Sound like anyone we know? To a psychologist, lots of human rituals look a lot like the automatic behaviours developed by Skinner’s pigeons or Dickinson’s rats. Chunks of behaviour that do not truly have an effect on the world, but which get stuck in our repertoire of actions.

And when the stakes are high – such as with sports – there is even more pressure on our brains to “capture” whatever behaviours might be important for success. Some rituals can help a sportsperson to relax and get “in the zone” as part of a well-established routine before and during a big game. But some of the habits you see put my kettle boiling routine to shame. Tiger Woods always wears red the last day of a golf tournament, because he says it is his “power colour”. In baseball, Wade Boggs claimed he hit better if he ate chicken the night before. Soccer’s Kolo Toure once missed the start of the second half because refused to come out – superstition dictated he had to be the last player to re-emerge from the dressing room, but on that occasion he was stuck there waiting for a stricken teammate to finish treatment.

We cling to these habits because we – or ancient animal parts of our brains – do not want to risk finding out what happens if we change. The rituals survive despite seeming irrational because they are coded in parts of our brains, which are designed by evolution not to think about reasons. They just repeat what seemed to work last time. This explains why having personal rituals is a normal part of being human. It is part of our inheritance as intelligent animals, a strategy that works in the long-term, even though it clearly does not make sense for every individual act.

Link: My columns at BBC Future
Link: UK readers – you’ll have to try it via here

Less thinking biases in a foreign tongue

A fascinating study just published in Psychological Science has found that solving problems in a foreign language reduces cognitive biases.

The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases

Psychological Science, Published online before print, April 18, 2012

Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, Sun Gyu An

Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue? It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic.

We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language.

Two additional experiments show that using a foreign language reduces loss aversion, increasing the acceptance of both hypothetical and real bets with positive expected value. We propose that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does.


Link to study summary (via @ProfessorFunk)

The lie detector paradox

I’ve got an article in today’s Observer about the unreliability of ‘lie detectors’ but why people still tend to spill the beans when wired up to them.

It turns out that polygraphs have a sort of placebo effect, where people are more truthful because they believe that they work. In fact, studies show that people are more truthful when wired up to a completely bogus ‘lie detector’ look-alike.

Worryingly though, law enforcement is staring to use this effect, which is based entirely on ignorance, to monitor sex offenders and evaluate their risk of carrying out other sexual assaults.

Needless to say, I feel this is foolish. Read the article for the full details.

By the way, this is the first of an every-six-weeks column I’ll be writing for the paper. As my friends will tell you, I rarely manage to say anything interesting that frequently, so wish me luck.

Link to Observer article ‘the truth about lie detectors’.

How Ghostwatch haunted psychiatry

In 1992, the BBC broadcast Ghostwatch, one of the most controversial shows in television history and one that has had a curious and unexpected effect on the course of psychiatry.

The programme was introduced as a live report into a haunted house but in reality, it was fiction. This is now a common plot device, but the broadcast happened in 1992, years before even The Blair Witch Project used the documentary format to tell a fictional story and viewers were used to news-like programmes presenting news-like facts.

But despite some subtle nods to its fictional nature, the fact it was broadcast on Halloween and the ridiculous conclusion (the poltergeist eventually escapes from the house, takes control of the BBC and possesses presenter Michael Parkinson), many people believed the ‘documentary’ was real and that the programme was capturing these astounding events as they happened. You can watch it on YouTube and see how it was introduced.

Consequently, lots of people were genuinely frightened by the programme, including many children who were watching with their families. As a result, the BBC was flooded with calls and letters and were forced to start an investigation into the programme.

As the controversy raged on, an article appeared in the British Medical Journal, written by two doctors from Gulson Hospital in Coventry, reporting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in two children that was apparently caused by watching Ghostwatch.

Case 1

This boy had been frightened by Ghostwatch and had refused to watch the ending. He subsequently expressed fear of ghosts, witches, and the dark, constantly talking about them and seeking reassurance. He suffered panic attacks, refused to go upstairs alone, and slept with the bedroom light on. He had nightmares and daytime flashbacks and banged his head to remove thoughts of ghosts. He became increasingly clingy and was reluctant to go to school or to allow his mother to go out without him.

Although not without scepticism, several other cases were published as replies to these initial reports producing a small case series of PTSD caused by the TV show.

These minor cases drifted into the history of medicine until people started to debate what event should be considered a sufficiently traumatic event in order to diagnose PTSD.

At the moment, the current DSM-IV-TR diagnosis for PTSD says that “the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others” and that the person’s response involved “intense fear, helplessness, or horror”.

It’s the “confronted with” part that allows people who have seen distressing things on TV and reacted with “intense fear, helplessness, or horror” to be diagnosed with PTSD.

At the time Ghostwatch was broadcast the criteria required that “the person has experienced an event that is outside the range usual human experience and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone” which could similarly be interpreted to allow TV programmes to cause the disorder.

The new proposed criteria for the DSM-5 wouldn’t allow television-triggered PTSD. In fact it specifically says that exposure to traumatic events “does not apply to exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures, unless this exposure is work related.”

Ghostwatch has played a part in changing how PTSD will be diagnosed. Although a major motivation was the wave of PTSD diagnoses after watching coverage of 9/11 on TV, the fictional ghost investigation is often cited in the medical literature as an example of how the existing criteria can lead to absurd consequences.

Although the programme is more famous for its effect on the history of media, it remains a minor but significant spectre in psychiatry’s past.

Link to GhostWatch entry on Wikipedia.

I predict a riot (based on a single study)

A group of black bloc researchers fed up with the lack of interest in replicating psychology studies has set up a strike force called the The Reproducibility Project that will recreate all 2008 studies from three major cognitive science journals.

That sound you can hear. That’s shit hitting the fan.

The Chronicle of Higher Education covers the project that’ll check-out the replicability of well-known studies.

So why not check? Well, for a lot of reasons. It’s time-consuming and doesn’t do much for your career to replicate other researchers’ findings. Journal editors aren’t exactly jazzed about publishing replications. And potentially undermining someone else’s research is not a good way to make friends.

Brian Nosek knows all that and he’s doing it anyway. Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is one of the coordinators of the project. He’s careful not to make it sound as if he’s attacking his own field. “The project does not aim to single out anybody,” he says. He notes that being unable to replicate a finding is not the same as discovering that the finding is false. It’s not always possible to match research methods precisely, and researchers performing replications can make mistakes, too.

But still. If it turns out that a sizable percentage (a quarter? half?) of the results published in these three top psychology journals can’t be replicated, it’s not going to reflect well on the field or on the researchers whose papers didn’t pass the test. In the long run, coming to grips with the scope of the problem is almost certainly beneficial for everyone. In the short run, it might get ugly.

Unfortunately, psychology and science in general still see a non-replication as a failure (in fact, we even use the term ‘failed replication’).

This is clearly nonsense and checking the original finding is equally as valuable if the new data agree with, or disagree with, the original study.

Sadly, we’ll have to change the attitude of several generations of scientists to reset this rusty conceptual switch.

The Reproducibility Project have just got frustrated with the entrenched attitudes and have manned the barricades. And who cam blame them?

Link to Chronicle article on The Reproducibility Project.

An antidote to post-natal venom

Today’s Observer has a remarkably vicious article about post-natal depression in fathers that is quite breathtaking in both its ignorance and its venom:

“One notices more talk of postnatal depression in fathers. I use the word “talk” advisedly, scientific proof still being in short supply. Were hormonal levels tested? Was postpartum bruising measured? How about the emergence of a human head in what – in deference to what might be your leisurely Sunday breakfast – I will refer to as the front-bottom area? In fact, was there anything at all to suggest that the subject had, at any point, given birth, thus making sense of adding the term “postnatal” to depression?”

Firstly, journalist Barbara Ellen clearly doesn’t know the difference between postnatal (after a child has been born) and postpartum (after giving birth). It is equally as possible to describe postnatal depression in fathers as it is to describe men, or indeed, women, having a postnatal breakfast.

The statement about “scientific proof still being in short supply” is just odd considering she then goes on to cite a study of 8,431 fathers published in the Lancet on postnatal depresison.

However, this is by no means the only study, as there are plenty more where that came from.

Ellen is also convinced that postnatal depression is “directly related to the physical act of pregnancy and childbirth”.

It is surely the case that the act of being pregnant and giving birth does increase the risk of postpartum depression owing to hormonal changes, but we also know, for example, that disruption to sleep patterns is also a risk factor – something that could equally affect both partners.

This part, though, is just amazingly and needlessly cruel:

I would have been more concerned that the mothers in question were having to put up with such exhausting narcissists as partners – men incapable of hiding their sulky self-absorption, even while being watched by researchers for a period of, wait for it, three minutes. Even serial killer Ted Bundy managed to look “normal” for longer than that.

Sadly, that’s not the only insult thrown in to the mix and just to top it off, the piece finishes on a logical fallacy / insult combo – enter the false dichotomy applied to human suffering:

It was a long, hard road for womankind, getting postnatal depression recognised as a condition, and also to receive medical attention or even routine sympathy. It seems to me that saying men can also get it is just cheapening this achievement.

Mental health is important for all and we don’t cheapen anyone else’s suffering by recognising the pain of others.

Link to nasty opinion piece (via @mjrobbins)

City flow

Slate has a wonderful article on the science of city walking that examines how pedestrians behave when moving through the city and how our behaviour is being captured to model the flow of people through the urban landscape.

The piece is full of subtle observations of city psychology:

Block by block, they emerge: The way people drift toward the shady side of the street on hot days; the way women (in particular) avoid subway grating on the sidewalk; the way walking speeds are slower at midday than before or after work; the way people don’t like to maintain the same walking speed as a stranger next to them; the way tourists walk in inappropriately spread out groups (a phenomenon captured by this satirical call for “tourist lanes”); the way sidewalk planters, parking meters, and other obstacles reduce the “effective width” of sidewalks, which have been under slow and steady spatial assault since the early 20th century…

Since Zupan’s research, a few new behaviors have come on the scene. One behavior pointed out to me by traffic engineer Sam Schwartz is people pausing before they enter the stairs of a subway station to check their mobile device one last time. Who knows what this social hiccup does to the overall efficiency? Recent research by the New York City Department of Transportation has found that when walkers talk on the phone, they walk more slowly, and when they wear headphones, they actually walk faster. As Zupan told me, “There are a lot of really microscopic dynamics—as Yogi Berra said, ‘You can see a lot just by observing.’ ”

It also discusses how these behaviours are now being included in statistical models to help town planning and architecture.

It’s an interesting problem that has a parallel with thermodyanmics. While we need to understand the interaction of single particles it is the macro level and how it excerpts pressure on the system which allows us design better mechanisms.

By the way, the science of pedestrian dynamics is becoming increasingly important and if you want to read more, a recent Economist article comes highly recommended.

Link to Slate article ‘Sidewalk Science’.